Visit Indy sets annual record for hotel room bookings

Boosted by local businesses, tourism group Visit Indy booked a record number of hotel room nights in 2015.

Visit Indy booked 904,717 hotel room-nights last year, beating the 2014 record of 880,552 room nights by 3 percent, the organization was set to announce at its annual meeting Thursday.

Conventions and corporate meetings are often booked years in advance, so the 2015 bookings count rooms for conventions and corporate meetings scheduled through 2027, but the vast majority of them will be used from 2016 through 2020.

One sign of bad news was found amid the record numbers: The number of hotel booking by out-of-state organizations declined by more than 100,000 rooms in 2015—a decline that Visit Indy CEO Leonard Hoops attributed to the aftermath of Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act controversy.

And concerns remain as Indiana lawmakers continue to debate the issue and what to do to protect the rights of gay and transgendered people.

A Senate committee on Wednesday narrowly advanced a bill that would extend civil rights protections to gay and lesbian Hoosiers but punt the issue of transgender discrimination to a summer study committee, as well as offer religious exemptions for clergy and other groups.

“We’re not a political organization, and while we haven’t taken a position on Senate Bill 344, one concern we have is putting the international media spotlight back on the state of Indiana and our Statehouse, which could cause the misperception that Indianapolis is not hospitable,” said Visit Indy Vice President Chris Gahl.

The 2015 figure for hotel-room bookings represents 117 percent of Visit Indy’s internally set goal, said Hoops.

The groups that chose Indy will generate an estimated $994 million in future economic impact for central Indiana, Visit Indy said.

There were many questions surrounding Visit Indy’s ability to reach—let alone surpass—its goal after the passage by the Indiana General Assembly last March of the controversial religious freedom law. Many groups decried the measure as biased against gay and transgendered people. The legislature later passed another law designed to "fix" the act.

The number of hotel rooms booked by organizations outside of Indiana from March—shortly after the RFRA controversy erupted—until the end of the year plummeted by 28 percent compared to the same period a year earlier, according to Visit Indy.

But bookings from Indiana-based organizations during the same period were up, as Visit Indy made an in-state plea for help. According to Visit Indy, Hoosier organizations—including the NCAA, National FFA and Drum Corps International—made up 38 percent of all hotel room bookings in 2015. During 2014, Hoosier bookings represented 25 percent of the total.

In 2014, in-state bookings accounted for 220,138 hotel rooms and in 2015, that number grew to 343,792. Out-of-state bookings dropped from 660,414 in 2014 to 560,925 in 2015.

“In 2015, in-state companies and corporations showed a confidence in the capital city by booking Indy as their host city for future convention and meeting business, therefore keeping the Indy tourism sector healthy as a whole,” Gahl said.

The National FFA last summer agreed to hold its massive annual youth convention in Indianapolis from 2016 to 2024 after the state gave the organization a big incentive package. A tourism source told IBJ that was done in part to bolster the city and state’s post-RFRA hospitality business.

Visit Indy officials continue to push the “Indy Welcomes All” tag line launched last March and tout the city’s human rights ordinance, which has been on the books since 2005.

One hospitality source said that Visit Indy has gotten its message through to some meeting planners, but added that some planners are worried that the perception that Indiana’s laws are not welcoming is still prevalent among convention sponsors and attendees.

A survey commissioned by Visit Indy late last year 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.”

A document prepared by Visit Indy and given to board members Thursday shows that 12 out-of-state groups that were surveyed said that the state's controversial RFRA law may have played some role in their decision to hold their events elsewhere.

Hoops noted that Visit Indy saw its year-over-year convention bookings drop by 43 percent in the second quarter of 2015 in the immediate aftermath of Indiana’s RFRA controversy, but added that convention sales were actually up year-over-year by 31 percent after July 1.  

“It took a few months for our team to methodically reach out to meeting decision-makers and communicate that Indianapolis already had its own long-standing human rights ordinance with full LGBT protections, and that Indiana’s religious freedom law had been amended and could not be used for discrimination,” Hoops said in a written statement. “We’re optimistic that groups that did not choose us during the second quarter of last year will reconsider us in the future especially when they compare Indy’s comprehensive HRO to other major cities.”

One smaller event, however, just announced it would leave Indianapolis and head to back to its original home of Columbus, Ohio. The National Pokemon Championships left Columbus in 2008 following a ticketing snafu that involved the Origins Fame Fair. The group said on its website Thursday that it will be going back.

But there was good news in 2015. Propelling the growth, Visit Indy inked a deal last year with the American Chemical Society, which will meet in Indy in 2023, generating $18.1 million in economic impact. In addition, the American Association of Nurse Practitioners’ National Conference booked Indy, to generate $12.3 million in economic impact when they meet in 2019.  And the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association’s Seminar & Expo will generate $11.4 million in 2020.

In addition to the convention sales results, Visit Indy set a record for summer weekend travel to Indy, tracking 405,983 non-group weekend (Friday and Saturday) hotel room-nights booked from Memorial Day to Labor Day, up from the record of 401,489 in 2014. Non-group weekend hotel room-nights in the summer are a key indicator of leisure tourism health.

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