Visit Indy to map city’s strategy for tourism

Does Indianapolis need a zip line connecting the heart of downtown to White River State Park—not only for entertainment but also as a mode of transportation?

How about a water taxi along White River from downtown to the Indianapolis Museum of Art—or even all the way to Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Fishers?

Should the next Indiana Convention Center expansion go up or out? If out, on the site of Victory Field? Or should the railroad tracks south of the convention center be cleared for an expansion and possibly a new hotel?

Local tourism officials hope for answers to these questions and more as Indianapolis undertakes its first-ever tourism master plan.

The city’s Capital Improvement Board in December approved spending $178,000 for a study leading to a plan looking to 2020.

“With this plan, we’re going to be looking at the big picture and the fine details,” said Leonard Hoops, CEO of the city’s tourism marketing arm, Visit Indy. “We’re going to get down to granular levels of planning like we’ve never done before.”

The project, which will involve outside consultants along with Visit Indy staff time, is expected to be completed in 12 to 18 months. Visit Indy already has hired one consultant—locally based Opportunities Unlimited—to help lay plans to enhance visitor experiences at various city destinations, and hopes to have a lead consultant hired by late March.

Broadly, the master plan will address: product development, events, visitor experience, neighborhoods and cultural districts, tourism infrastructure, transportation, advocacy and public affairs, and partnerships and alliances.

The plan also will address aspects of corporate travel and conventions, other types of group business, and leisure travel.

Additionally, the study will seek to address the need for a tourism and visitor center in Indianapolis and the possibility for partnering with corporate interests the way Atlanta does with Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines. It will look at what to do about panhandling and how to get more direct flights to and from Indianapolis International Airport, among other topics that will shape hospitality growth for years to come.

Although a tourism master plan has been pondered periodically, the initiative took wing last summer after Visit Indy officials attended a seminar led by officials in Vancouver, British Columbia, about tourism master planning.

A spate of new development in recent years—including Lucas Oil Stadium, the midfield Indianapolis International Airport terminal, the 1,005-room JW Marriott, and the Indiana Convention Center expansion—have positioned Indianapolis to grow its tourism and convention business. But having that infrastructure is not enough, Hoops said.

“Indianapolis [officials] are not going to sit on their hands and say ‘We’re good,’” Hoops said. “There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be fleshed out. That’s why this is going to be a significant study.”

Master plans are nothing new for city planning commissions. More recently, hospitality and other groups have begun to see the value in such planning.

Last year, Indianapolis Downtown Inc. crafted its own master plan—dubbed "Velocity"—mapping development and use of the city’s center from several different points of view.

Tourism Vancouver has been on the leading edge of the hospitality planning trend, and Visit Indy officials are consulting with officials there as they craft their own plan.

Hoops is confident the master plan will more than pay for itself.

“We’re assuring that the CIB maintains a healthy revenue stream, which in turn pays to operate the infrastructure we need and fuels our efforts to market the city’s tourism and convention industry,” he said.

CIB is funded primarily through visitor taxes on services including rental cars, hotel rooms and dining out. It, in turn, is the primary funder of Visit Indy.

Brenda Myers, executive director of the Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau and a CIB board member, said, “The type of research you need to do which generates the really valuable information is time-intensive and costs a lot of money. When you look at the amount of information we’re going to generate, it’s not really a lot of money.”

Although the master plan won’t govern a time period per se, Hoops expects it to look out as far as 2020 and be updated every year.

Milt Thompson, a CIB and Visit Indy board member, said, “This is going to give us a blueprint of where we need to be and how to get there.”

The master plan will deal primarily with Indianapolis, but some things outside the city’s borders also will be addressed. For instance, how will the new Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield affect hotels and other attractions in Marion County?

“I’m hopeful this plan includes an inventory of the region, because it’s a symbiotic relationship between Indianapolis and the surrounding counties,” Myers said. “If you’re not looking at all the ways we can work together, you’re leaving opportunities on the table.”

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