Meeting and Event Planning Guide: 2024 presents ‘a huge tourism opportunity’

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Three years ago, Indianapolis tourism officials looked at the slate for 2024 with some concern. Not many marquee events—other than a rescheduled NBA All-Star Weekend—were on the books, and leaders were still worried about whether big conventions would return to the city post-pandemic.

With that top of mind, leaders from Visit Indy, Indiana Sports Corp. and the Capital Improvement Board—which operates the Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium—set out to turn things around.

“We saw that we had [several] weeks where we could fill up our city with visitors,” said Chris Gahl, executive vice president of Visit Indy. “So, we launched a very aggressive sales and marketing campaign at that time to go … court groups to book in Indianapolis.”

To hear Gahl and other leaders tell it, the campaign paid off, positioning the city to have its busiest year in recent memory—and maybe even its highest-profile year yet.

Indianapolis will be one of a handful of major metropolitan areas where the total solar eclipse will be fully visible on April 8, 2024. And NASA selected the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as one of three official viewing sites in the country.

Then, in June, Lucas Oil Stadium—and more broadly, Indianapolis—will host the U.S. Olympic swimming trials ahead of the games in Paris.

In November, Lucas Oil will host Taylor Swift’s “Eras Tour” for three nights, shows that are already sold out.

Those banner events will be joined by others that have either recently made or renewed longtime commitments to Indianapolis, like the Sweets & Snacks Expo, which will move its annual show here from Chicago; the first National Eucharistic Conference; the NFL National Scouting Combine; and the Big Ten Football Championship.

Establishing a strategy

“Not a month next year is going to go by where we don’t have something significant happening in our city from a tourism perspective, whether that’s a large annual conference that’s coming back, or something new,” Gahl said.

Visit Indy anticipates its 48 largest events—those bringing at least 2,000 people downtown—to account for more than 1 million visitors and nearly $730 million in spending. And that doesn’t include Swift’s shows, Colts games, or the total solar eclipse.

“Having done our homework, we know 2024 is a huge tourism opportunity for Indianapolis,” he said.

As part of efforts to push that activity even further, Visit Indy plans to spend $1 million from CIB contributions to market the city to even more meeting and event planners, along with leisure travelers.

While details of the advertising campaigns have not been finalized, the campaigns are expected to include cross promotion of many of the city’s 2024 events, largely through digital promotion but also through linear streams like radio, print and television.

“The ability of Visit Indy to showcase the diversity of events that we are hosting means we’re able to invite and realize even more visitors than we might have been able to otherwise,” Gahl said. “We’ve got a very diverse, very robust lineup of events that visitors can choose from. It’s our job to harness that energy and to harness those events and drive even more visitation to Indianapolis.

“That’s what excites us the most: When our hotels are full, our restaurants are buzzing, and our convention center is packed.”

CIB Executive Director Andy Mallon called the campaigns an “incremental step” toward a much larger goal for the city’s tourism industry: Diversify.

“We’re trying to fill out and diversify our revenue, so we’re not as group-dependent,” he said. “It will also help the hotels and businesses downtown to fill in gaps [in the calendar]. Indianapolis and Indiana are not necessarily known as a vacation destination.”

City tourism officials aren’t alone in that effort. In recent years, the Indiana Destination Development Corp., a quasi-government agency that focuses on the state’s tourism efforts, has pushed for more funding to bring it up to par with neighboring states.

In 2024, the entity will get a major bump, from $4.5 million this year to about $15 million.

Elaine Bedel, CEO of the Indiana Destination Development Corp., said the slate of activities in Indianapolis next year will allow the group to promote the state in new ways.

“With all of these events happening, and the number of people who will be enjoying them from across our state—as well as an awful lot from outside Indiana—it presents a great opportunity for us,” she said.

The IDDC plans to deploy photo booths at numerous events next year that will create avenues for future engagement.

“They may stick close to the venue or their event for that trip, but if we can get them some more information and leave them wondering, ‘What else is happening? What else is there to do in Indiana?’ we might be able to entice them to extend [their stay] or to come back another time,” Bedel said.

‘Complete chaos’

While big events mean big business for the city’s hotels—particularly downtown—it can also be a strain on the hospitality ecosystem, said Phil Ray, general manager of the JW Marriott.

In some ways, hoteliers are approaching events like NBA All-Star Weekend and the swimming trials like the city handled the Super Bowl—an extensive sporting event with massive fan involvement and plenty of related activities across the city.

Already, most of downtown’s nearly 7,500 hotel rooms have been booked for All-Star Weekend in February, in part because the National Basketball Association is holding a massive block of rooms as part of its agreement with the city.

And Taylor Swift’s concerts will present an entirely different challenge, Ray said, adding that he’s eager for the business the shows will bring.

“First of all, for that weekend we went from having no business for those three dates [Nov. 1-3] and virtually nothing on the books, to all [of a] sudden knowing it’s going to be complete chaos downtown on those days,” he said. “One of the biggest things is that people don’t get concert tickets for three nights for a single performer—they typically go to one of the shows. So, we’re trying to manage that.”

While there’s plenty of turnover at hotels throughout a given week, Ray said it’s rare that more than 1,000 guests are checking in or out at the same time on back-to-back dates. Rather, most guests come into town for an event or business for a couple of days, then depart, and new guests arrive, allowing business to be more staggered.

With Swift’s shows—which could draw more than 150,000 people to the city over a three-day period—hoteliers hope to find ways to encourage fans to stay multiple nights. They’re currently working with Visit Indy to nail down an approach that might entice more people to stay.

Ray said he expects hotel rates in 2024 to be higher than typical, especially for events expected to draw big crowds and high demand.

Hotel rooms for the dates of Swift’s concerts aren’t expected to open until December at the earliest. But Ray said fans should expect “very high rates.”

“It’s going to be a very unique [event] for the JW to sell. But we also need to make sure the guest experience matches up to what their expectations are when they come to town.”

More to come?

Debbie Locklear, owner of Meeting Services Unlimited, an event planning company focused on small to midsize conventions and events, said she’s eager for 2024 and has few concerns about the impacts larger events might have on the events she’s helped land for the city.

That’s because the Indiana Convention Center and hotels typically work closely with smaller groups to help find accommodations when larger groups get booked for overlapping dates—whether it’s different (and often discounted) rooms or space or selecting a new date. While that so far hasn’t been necessary for her events in 2024, she predicted that the events she’s helped book will be able to feed off the energy created downtown throughout the year by the larger activity.

“This is an exciting thing for our city and for our business,” she said. “There’s a lot of buzz in the industry right now that everything is coming back to where it was before 2020—not only in Indianapolis, but in a lot of places. On our end, we want to see the city maximize its space and get the larger groups. It works out in everybody’s favor when something like that happens.”

Patrick Talty, president of the Indiana Sports Corp., said he thinks there’s plenty to be excited about for next year.

In addition to the shows and conventions already listed, other sporting events are planned: the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament’s first and second rounds; the NCAA Division III Swimming and Diving Championships; and the NIT Men’s Basketball Championship at Hinkle Fieldhouse—which marks the return of postseason basketball to the historic Butler University venue after it hosed 16 games during the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Tourism leaders will continue trying to fill remaining dates on the calendar—including finding additional uses for Lucas Oil Stadium, which is already reserved for several large conventions, including FDIC International, Gen Con, Performance Racing Industry and others. It will also host at least eight home Colts games.

“There’s lots of opportunities out there, and we’re not going to stop until we fill every single year and building with a major event,” Talty said. “I look at other cities, and I look at our lineup, and I think people are jealous of what we have because we do have something almost every single year that’s on a big scale.”•

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