Poll finds RFRA impacts linger; Visit Indy acts to blunt damage

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A survey commissioned by Visit Indy—the city’s tourism marketing arm—found there is still significant lingering negative effects of the RFRA controversy from last year.

In October—seven months after the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed—Visit Indy hired Reach Market Planning and Walker Research to conduct an online survey of national meeting planners and Chicago residents, who make up 60 percent of leisure travelers to Indianapolis.

Visit Indy Vice President Chris Gahl said the study’s findings—which will be discussed at the group’s Jan. 28 annual meeting—show the city’s tourism marketing arm “has work to do.”

In fact, Visit Indy officials were so concerned by the survey’s findings that last month—when the study was finalized—they took steps to train their sales staff to proactively discuss RFRA and the amendments meant to temper the original RFRA law, which critics say could lead to discrimination against people who are gay and transgender. In addition, Visit Indy sales staff are now set to discuss the city’s Human Rights Ordinance, which makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Visit Indy also decided to double down on its efforts to promote the post-RFRA slogan it launched last year: “Indy Welcomes All.” That slogan is now being used even more prominently in the city’s tourism and convention marketing materials and at tourism and convention-related trade shows attended by Visit Indy, officials from the organization said.

That decision comes in the wake of the survey, which showed that—so far—the mantra isn’t connecting or resonating with key constituencies. 

The survey found that only 45 percent of the 339 meeting decision makers polled agree with the city’s post-RFRA battle cry “Indy Welcomes All.” And a mere 28 percent surveyed agree with the statement “Indiana Welcomes All.”

Fifty-eight percent of meeting planners polled cited RFRA/LGBT issues when asked the unaided question: “Has Indianapolis been in the news recently, and if so, for what topic(s)?”

And of the 419 Chicago residents polled, only 43 percent agreed with the statement “Indy Welcomes All.” Even fewer—38 percent—agree with the statement “Indiana Welcomes All.”

Only 32 percent of Chicago residents polled either agree or strongly agree that “Indianapolis has a strong and diverse business community.”

Gahl admitted that he was somewhat surprised by the severity of the lingering effects of RFRA.

“While we were anticipating a ripple effect even seven months after the crisis, we didn’t expect the recall to be as high which does give us cause for concern,” Gahl said.

Visit Indy had to “claw its way” to meeting its 2015 goal of booking 750,000 hotel room nights for future years, Gahl said.

“It was a full-court press and a very intense process to get us to a point where we are healthy in future hotel room bookings,” Gahl said.

Gahl added that Visit Indy and other Indianapolis tourism and hospitality companies and officials have an eye on this year’s General Assembly, where many hope some type of post-RFRA measure will be considered. Gay rights advocates are pushing the Legislature to add gender identity and sexual orientation to the state’s civil rights law, but proposals in the Indiana Senate seek to find a balance between gay rights and religious liberties.

“The verdict is still out on the perception data and how it will affect us in 2016,” Gahl said. “We’re going to act on this [survey]. We know we have a lot of work to do.”

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