City beat steep odds to land NRA convention

A critical moment in the city’s effort to land the 2014 National Rifle Association annual gathering came at the 2005 Indianapolis 500, during a meet-and-greet with city tourism officials. But personal lobbying from Gov. Mitch Daniels a few years later might have sealed the deal.

Visit Indy conducts up to 300 site visits for convention and meeting planners in a typical year, but the one with NRA officials that bustling May weekend was one of the most lucrative: It led to the city’s second-largest non-sports gathering ever for attendance and third-biggest for economic impact, said Chris Gahl, Visit Indy vice president of marketing and communications.

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The NRA convention is expected to draw more than 700 exhibitors and 70,000 visitors to the Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium April 25-27. Those visitors are predicted to drop $55.4 million into the local economy. That’s more than this year’s Big Ten men’s basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Big Ten football championship at Lucas Oil Stadium combined. The NRA show will mean twice the economic impact of seven of Indianapolis’ 10 biggest conventions this year.

“This is the type of show that almost any city with the capabilities to host it would clamor for,” said Jonathan Day, a professor of hospitality at Purdue University. “Intense competition is an understatement.”

A fish this big takes time to land. And the effort to reel in the NRA began well before 2005. It was coordinated over a decade and through the administrations of four Visit Indy CEOs.

Toward the end of his long reign as Visit Indy CEO, Bill McGowan charged his staff with going after larger, city-wide conventions—the type that could fill every city hotel room and score the city tens of millions of dollars in one fell swoop. Bob Bedell, who replaced McGowan in 2002, picked up that torch and ran.

One day in 2003, a Visit Indy sales executive called the NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Va. Though the NRA’s mission has met opposition in certain circles over the years, Indianapolis tourism officials had no compunction about pursuing the organization’s biggest show.

“We’re not a political organization. We try to stay as neutral as possible and focus instead on scoring the biggest economic impact we can,” said Leonard Hoops, who became Visit Indy CEO in 2011.

That call to the NRA led to in-person meetings later in 2003.

Selling a vision

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But there was a problem. The Indiana Convention Center—even with the RCA Dome—was likely too small for the growing NRA show. Undaunted, Visit Indy officials continued to meet with NRA officials through 2004.

In 2004, Bedell pushed for a feasibility study on expanding the convention center and building Lucas Oil Stadium, and spearheaded the campaign for approval and funding from the Indiana General Assembly on the projects and passing a 1-percent increase in the tourism tax to fund the $1 billion needed.

By the time NRA meeting planners landed in Indianapolis in May 2005, the idea of a new football stadium and convention center expansion were more than a pipe dream. The plans for a new airport terminal and additional downtown hotel inventory also were coming together. Suddenly, the idea of Indianapolis meeting the NRA’s specifications didn’t seem far-fetched.

Still, selling something not yet in existence complicated the discussions.

“We had to sell them on a vision,” said Gahl, who joined Visit Indy in 2005. “That’s not always easy.”

Andrew Arulanandam, NRA director of public affairs, said NRA officials could see early in the discussions that, if Indianapolis could turn the vision into reality, the city would be “a perfect fit.”

Central location was key. Indianapolis is within 300 miles of 1 million NRA members, Arulanandam noted.

“The city also had an ideal downtown that was compact and walkable,” he said. “We also liked the fact that there were four major interstates connecting the city, it had good transportation infrastructure, and that things like hotels and parking weren’t going to be a problem for our members.”

Still, without the convention center expansion in place, there were questions.

In the nick of time

Local tourism officials had a vision, but they wouldn’t get renderings of the Indiana Convention Center until 2008.

NRA-timeline.jpg“In 2008, we started quickly and swiftly selling Indianapolis not through the lens of what Indianapolis did look like, but rather what the city would look like when all the key projects were done in 2011,” Gahl said.

Luckily, NRA officials got a gander at the Indiana Convention Center renderings as well as plans for the 1,005-room JW Marriott on the western edge of downtown before putting out a request for proposals in 2009 for potential 2014 host cities.

ICVA, under the leadership of hard-charging CEO Don Welsh, didn’t hesitate to respond. Then-Gov. Mitch Daniels was called on not only to write a letter in support of the bid, but, sources said, he also personally called his friend, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, to lobby to bring the show to Indianapolis.

Daniels, now the Purdue University president, was unavailable to discuss his role in bringing the NRA show to Indianapolis, but he did provide a statement: “Bringing new jobs and dollars to the state was always our administration’s first priority, so I always was willing to help on any such project when asked.”

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard also wrote the NRA in support of bringing the show here.

Early in 2010, NRA officials visited Indianapolis to see the progress on the convention center expansion and JW Marriott. Local officials said it was a tense meeting because of what was at stake.

“We had to sell them through the dust and debris of this massive construction project,” Gahl said. “Again, not the easiest task, but we used all our resources to paint them a picture and show them our vision. I think by the time they left, they had a good idea of what the finished product would look like.”

The always-animated Welsh was at the center of the tour, but there was no shortage of local officials and dignitaries doing their best to sell the city.

In December 2010, the NRA officially selected Indianapolis as host for its 2014 convention. A combination of relief and joy resonated through the Visit Indy office.

“When you think of all that’s gone into the bid, everything that’s at stake, the competition and odds we faced … well, whew, that’s a good call to get,” Gahl said. “A really good call.”•

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