Tourism officials kept mum on NRA convention for years

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Visit Indy officials knew in 2010 when they finalized a deal to bring the National Rifle Association’s annual convention here in 2014 it would likely cause a stir.

But they also knew it would be the most lucrative trade show or convention in the city’s history, and that it could draw other big trade shows to the recently expanded Indiana Convention Center.

At the request of NRA officials, no local press release or other official statement was made about the trade show being held in Indianapolis, Visit Indy officials said Monday. The show is now just a few months off, with set-up scheduled to begin April 22, and the convention running April 25-27.

Usually, city tourism officials seek as much publicity as they can get as soon as a major deal is signed.

“Yes, we know the convention [could] be polarizing," said Visit Indy spokesman Chris Gahl. "We also know it will be the biggest convention we hold in 2014, drawing 65,000 to 70,000 visitors and with an economic impact of $55 million."

An NRA spokesman told IBJ on Monday that the group did not specifically ask Indianapolis officials to keep mum on the event. In fact, the group had attempted to make a public announcement in Indianapolis, he said.

“We tried to have a physical announcement in Indianapolis, maybe it was in 2010, I forget the year,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. “It was tough trying to get all the dignitaries lined up. It just never materialized."

The show has been well publicized among its members, Arulanandam said.

“We have marketed this to our membership on an ongoing basis," he said. "At last year’s show in Houston, we had a big banner up that said, 'See you in Indianapolis in 2014.'”

Gahl was quick to point out that there are other gun and knife shows held in Indianapolis. He also stressed the strong security the NRA maintains at its conventions.

“They are incredibly well organized,” Gahl said. “Their events have been held without incident for many decades.”

The second-largest gathering Indianapolis will host in 2014 is GenCon, which is expected to draw 49,000 visitors and have an economic impact of $49 million.

Visit Indy began calling the NRA seeking its huge, annual convention as early as 2006, when plans to expand the Indiana Convention Center and construct the 1,005-room JW Marriott were being rolled out.

“It’s not always easy to sell through the dust and debris, but we did just that,” Gahl said, explaining that some of NRA officials’ site visits to Indianapolis occurred while the Convention Center and JW Marriott were under construction.

The NRA annual convention will draw 700 exhibitors. They will feature a variety of firearms, as well as hunting, camping and other outdoor gear and equipment that will be for sale. The show also features big-name speakers and other entertainment. Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was a featured speaker at last year’s show.

Arulanandam said that registrations for this year’s event have been coming in strong.

“We think because of Indianapolis’ central location, attendance could be quite high,” he said. “We have a lot of membership in or nearby the area, and the infrastructure they have in Indianapolis is a great fit for us.”

He acknowledged that there have been some protests at past NRA conventions, but said there have been no major disturbances.

“We respect the right of others to exercise their First Amendment rights, and we hope people respect our rights to exercise our First and Second Amendment rights,” he said.

The show will be good business for Indianapolis, Gahl said.

“This show requires a considerable set-up and has a number of moving parts. It will demonstrate what we can do in terms of hosting a mega, city-wide show,” Gahl said. “This is the type of show that a lot of cities pursue. This is something we’re already touting with other meeting and convention planners.”

The NRA generally only signs one-year deals for its annual convention. There’s little doubt, Gahl said, that Visit Indy officials will seek to bring the NRA back after 2014.

Once cities land the lucrative NRA annual convention, Arulanandam said, they often bid to get it back. In the last 15 years, Charlotte, Houston, St. Louis and Pittsburgh have each held the event twice.

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