Openings launch new era for Indianapolis tourism

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The $275 million Indiana Convention Center expansion was completed in January, and the 1,005-room JW Marriott opened the following month.

But while the projects marked the start of a new era for the city’s tourism industry, the man who helped lead the charge for aggressive expansion, Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association CEO Don Welsh, wasn’t here to see it come to fruition.

Welsh, ICVA CEO since 2008, caught local tourism officials off guard when he announced Jan. 2 that he was leaving to become CEO of the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau.

Undaunted, ICVA pressed ahead with plans to compete for corporate meetings and conventions with the likes of Chicago, Orlando, Las Vegas and San Diego.

ICVA officials spent 2011 crisscrossing the nation touting the city’s new midfield airport terminal, Lucas Oil Stadium, and the expanded convention center and growing downtown hotel market.

By all accounts, the effort paid off, as hotel room nights sold increased more than 10 percent over 2010. The JW Marriott alone sold 200,000 room nights in 2011.

The Convention Center expansion was part of a long-term plan to bolster the vitality of downtown and attract millions of additional dollars in visitor spending.

But the project was not without risk. It cost $275 million to build, and convention center operating expenses rose from $6 million in 2010 to $11 million in 2011.

The city’s Capital Improvement Board, which owns the Convention Center, anted up another $2.6 million for upgrades to the old convention space so it will match the addition.

The state financed the bulk of the expansion by selling bonds. The money to pay off the bonds and some operating expenses is coming from a stew of taxes on hotel rooms, meals and rental vehicles.

From the mid-1990s to 2008, the city booked about 500,000 room nights annually. The ICVA ramped up sales efforts and booked about 650,000 hotel-room nights in 2009 and 2010. The goal is to reach 850,000 by 2015, said ICVA Chief Financial Officer James Wallis.

If those goals aren’t met, the city will have difficulty paying to operate the expanded facility.

The man charged with reaching those goals is Leonard Hoops, who succeeded Welsh in March. Hoops previously was executive vice president and chief customer officer of the San Francisco Travel Association.•

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