Visit Indy scoring medical confabs after years of courting sector

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Visit Indy in the last six months has signed deals for four sizable medical/pharmaceutical-related conventions—hard-earned wins for a city that for years has aimed to be a biomedical hub that attracts big players for annual gatherings.

The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation will bring 4,000 delegates here in 2017. The American Academy of Physicians Assistants will draw 8,000 in 2022. The American Chemical Society will draw 14,000 in 2023. And the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association will attract 13,500 in 2026.

leonard hoops Hoops

Combined, those events will have a local economic impact of more than $42 million.

Visit Indy CEO Leonard Hoops is confident the city’s four recent victories will catch the eye of other medical/pharmaceutical meeting planners.

“We are currently in bid stage with 72 medical meetings for future years and in ‘hot prospect’ stage—actively engaged with the customer to get the opportunity to bid—with 42 medical meetings for future years,” Hoops said.

That’s pretty amazing considering the city’s past. This year, only six of Indianapolis’ 55 major conventions and corporate gatherings—and none of its 10 biggest—will fall into the health care category.

Of all 338 meetings Visit Indy booked for 2015, just more than 11 percent fell into that sector. While the $32.2 million in economic impact from those events is nothing to sneeze at, Visit Indy officials are aiming much higher.

The city is far behind convention mega cities such as Orlando, which has about 40 percent of its conventions in health care, and San Diego, which counts seven of its 10 biggest conventions in the category.

Indianapolis’ convention history has been in the social, military, educational, religious and fraternal sectors—collectively known as SMERF. In recent years, those shows—whose attendees are known to be more frugal than corporate convention-goers—compose about one-third of the city’s convention calendar.

Long, hard road

The dearth of health care conventions doesn’t mean Visit Indy hasn’t tried to get them. Dating back to the early 2000s, local tourism leaders pursued these big fish.

When Leonard Hoops took over for Don Welsh in 2011, he secured funding from drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co. Inc.’s foundation to bolster promotions.

Hoops, who served as vice president of the San Francisco Travel Association before coming to Indianapolis, had seen firsthand what medical/pharmaceutical-related conventions could mean for a city.

They bring in attendees who not only beat the national average in spending, but are also the type of people local leaders want exposed to the city.

“Companies like Lilly and Roche have been clamoring for these types of events,” Hoops said. “It’s an essential way to promote the city and makes it easier for these companies to recruit and hire people from all over.”

Despite the allure, the task was a tall order for Visit Indy staffers.

“Some meeting planners in this sector won’t even crack the door open for us,” Hoops said. “Some people still think we’re vanilla, and they want Rocky Road.”

conventions-table.gifVisit Indy officials had been calling on The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association since 2001, and were never even allowed to bid on its event. Instead, that organization chose New Orleans, Chicago, San Diego, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., during that period.

Visit Indy officials bid for and lost the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s convention five times in nine years. They have been bidding for The American Academy of Physicians Assistants convention since 1997.

Time after time, city tourism leaders saw these events slip away to bigger and sexier convention destinations, primarily on the East and West coasts.

Undeterred, Hoops bolstered Visit Indy’s presence in Washington, D.C., where many of these organizations are headquartered. Last year, he instituted a “12-touch” marketing program where Visit Indy sales staffers contact big targets once a month. He produced a list of high-profile groups—many with medical and pharmaceutical ties—that his staff was “never to give up on.”

“Winning these events is exciting stuff,” Hoops said. “To win these, you have to fight it out with the big boys.”

Tough competition

debbie locklear Locklear

Local meeting planner Debbie Locklear said the competition for medical/pharmaceutical “is tremendous.”

“These are high-profile, high-spend events and every major convention destination in the country is after them,” said Locklear, president and owner of locally based Meeting Services Unlimited Inc., which handles national trade shows locally and nationally.

Hoops gives a lot of credit for the recent wins to Kenneth Hemsley, who headed sales efforts for several of the medical shows, and Joyce Russell, director of Visit Indy’s Washington, D.C., office.

There were other factors, too.

Last year, USA Today ranked Indianapolis the nation’s No. 1 convention city. Hoops said that helped “open a lot of doors and conversations.” The ripple effect from hosting the 2012 Super Bowl also played a part.

Another factor: The Physician Payment Sunshine Act, passed in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act, put in place strict reporting regulations for meetings attended by doctors. The mandated reporting started Aug. 1, 2013, and the result, meeting planners said, is more fiscal restraint when it comes to meetings.

Meeting planners seem to agree the Sunshine Act might make Indianapolis—which is known to be cheaper due to its central location, compact downtown and hotel pricing than many other major convention destinations—more attractive than far-flung locales like Orlando and San Diego.

‘Telling our story’

smith Smith

Regardless of why these types of meeting are coming to Indianapolis, it’s good news for local medical and pharmaceutical companies, said Indiana Secretary of Commerce Victor Smith.

“It’s all about telling our story,” Smith said. “We have a growing biomedical and pharmaceutical sector here, and I can’t think of a better way to promote the region than to draw decision-makers and others in this sector to our city and state to show them.”

He said targeting these types of conventions plays right into the state’s blueprint to grow the sector. According to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, wages in the medical/pharmaceutical fields are about 30 percent higher than overall state wages.

Lori LeRoy knows firsthand how this works. She was working in the electronics industry in Atlanta when she came to Indianapolis for the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association convention in 2001.

“We were thinking about relocating, and the trip here opened my and my husband’s eyes to the possibility of moving here,” LeRoy said.

Not long after, she and her family did move here and she took a job with BioCrossroads, the life sciences business development group. She said the same experience could happen to people in the medical and pharmaceutical industries.

“When you come and stay for a few days, you see this city in a whole new light,” LeRoy said. “You get to see the collaborative effort here, the caliber of the universities, the corporate landscape, and the overall offerings the city has. It demonstrates that this is not just a great place for a convention, but also a place to live and do business.”•

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