The PRI lounge returned to Indianapolis this month after being canceled last year. (Photos IBJ / Mickey Shuey)

Indianapolis tourism officials say the city’s convention and event operations are expected to be almost fully restored by the end of 2022, at least based on attendance and economic impact projections.

In fact, the economic impact is expected to be even higher than before the 2019 pandemic. And 2019 has been a good year.

But much of that 2022 impact will be due to one single event: next month’s national college football qualifiers.

On its own, the four-day weekend, which is expected to culminate with the championship game on Jan. 10, is expected to attract some 100,000 people and inject more than $ 150 million into the local economy.

This assumes that the latest COVID variant – omicron – does not disrupt the championship.

Chris Gahl

Chris Gahl, vice president of the city’s tourism agency Visit Indy, has so far said officials expect the weekend to go as planned.

“Hotels are still near full capacity, a leading indicator that fans and visitors are still heading to Indy in less than 19 days,” Gahl told IBJ.

And that’s important as the city seeks to reclaim belongings lost during two years of the pandemic.

“The event is going to be a positive outlier for the city and will greatly aid our efforts to recover from the pandemic,” Gahl said. “There are a lot of people coming for just one weekend, and it’s just happening as we kick off the New Year. This is going to be a major boost.

Larry DeGaris, a sports marketing expert at the University of Indianapolis, said that in addition to the fans of the participating teams, the business community will likely also drive many visitors to Indianapolis due to the sponsors associated with the game, such as Allstate, AT&T, Mercedes-Benz and Goodyear, among dozens of others.

“There is huge business value, in particular, with events like this. It’s not just football fans who come to town; these are the sponsors, ”he said. “The companies are going to be there and while the entertainment for the customers is not completely back, the sponsors are. So that’s a tremendous opportunity too – it’s harder to measure than headboards, but in my opinion it’s at least the same economic value.

While the projected economic and attendance figures for the 2022 convention and event listing are a marked improvement over 2020 and 2021 levels, the actual event count is still lower than normal for Indianapolis. .

So far, Visit Indy has scheduled 246 conventions, trade shows and sporting events through the end of next year, with an expected attendance of 850,000 people and an economic impact of $ 836 million.

In 2019, Visit Indy estimates that the city generated $ 779 million in economic impact through more than 660 events with an attendance of 1.3 million people.

Hotel room usage, a key measure of the impact of a convention or event, is also expected to rebound widely in 2022. Visitors to Visit Indy projects will use 734,000 overnight stays, up from 801,000 in 2019.

This year, events and conventions generated just 447,000 overnight stays, more than double the number in 2020.

Officials say the numbers are likely to rise, given that Visit Indy and the Indiana Convention Center plan to book an additional 125 to 150 events for the final months of 2022.

But as it stands, the number of booked conventions and events is lower than Indianapolis has hosted in the past two decades (except in 2020, when the industry essentially shut down).

Big expenses

Tourism officials say the number of bookings is not as important as the size of these events and how much attendees spend. And by this measure, the city seems primed for a good year; its biggest annual events are expected to return to full capacity, including FFA, PRI, Gen Con, and FDIC.

Including these events – and the Nike Mideast Volleyball Qualifier – the city’s five biggest annual events on the 2022 calendar are expected to almost match the attendance and economic impact of the five biggest annual events of 2019.

And, thanks to the soccer championship, the top five non-annual events are expected to be the best in 2019.

“Whether you look at the number of attendees entering our city… or the economic impact of what these conventions and events generate, we are much healthier than the other major cities we compete with on a daily basis,” said Gahl. .

For example, the Performance Racing Industry trade show held from December 9 to 11 drew 65,000 people downtown, just under the 67,000 who attended the event in 2019. Likewise, the National FFA Expo had 55,000 attendees, about 24% fewer than the last in-event’s total of 70,000 people.

Jamie Meyer, president of Performance Racing Industry, said that canceling the 2020 show was an “extremely difficult decision,” but he was impressed with Indianapolis’ efforts to ensure the show can take place this year.

“People [were] very excited to get back together, and Indianapolis is a big part of that story – the city has worked very diligently to bring great activities and groups of people together, ”he said.

One category that has not yet returned is that of smaller events which typically have between 500 and 2,000 people. Local organizations and businesses, including Eli Lilly Co. and Roche Diagnostics, have yet to resume organizing the mid-sized business meetings at the convention center or downtown hotels they have had. these last years.

Nonetheless, Gahl said the convention industry has rebounded well and is confident in the city’s viability as a convention destination for the next year and beyond.

Visit Indy has seen around 500 groups cancel in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, totaling just under $ 1 billion in visitor spending. But the organization noted that the city had managed to recoup nearly a third of those losses through a new reservation, totaling around $ 300 million in visitor spending.

“We are very confident that, based on the projections, we will make a full recovery by the end of 2022,” Gahl said. “It’s not just because of what we see and hear on our own, and what is in our books collectively here in Indianapolis, but also because of the hotel forecast for the nation.”

Visit Indy is also negotiating to book 13 other major conventions that were canceled due to the pandemic in 2020 or 2021. These groups represent a potential economic impact of $ 85.3 million and an additional 74,000 overnight stays.

A helping hand

Indianapolis could recover faster than some cities in part because it was among the first to bring events back to the convention center in the summer of 2020, attracting several youth sports tournaments and small conventions as many other cities were still closed.

The Capital Improvement Council also invested $ 7 million in safety-related improvements to the convention center as part of this effort.

STR, a hotel data tracking company based in suburban Nashville, Tennessee, predicts a full national recovery by 2023. But, even with Indianapolis on a similar path according to STR figures, observers say the city could emerge a bit earlier due to its efforts during the pandemic.

“The demand for rooms that was hot in 2019 will be hot again in 2023 for the country,” said Jan Freitag, senior vice president of STR, who noted that 2019 was the best year for hotel occupancy. “But not everyone will meet at the same time.”

Jim Dora Jr.

He said cities like Indianapolis can get a head start by continuing to market themselves as open for business and maintaining a streamlined health and safety process that can be easily followed by groups. He said that adequate staffing levels for hotels and restaurants will also make a big difference, especially with groups that might be loyal customers.

Jim Dora Jr., president and CEO of local General Hotels Corp., which owns several lodging properties in Indianapolis and other Midwestern cities, said he was pleasantly surprised by the recovery. rapidity of the city, crediting Visit Indy and the responsiveness of the city’s hospitality industry. for the rebound.

But he added that the biggest hurdle will be returning business travelers to uniform occupancy schedules.

“We’ve seen recreation start to return on weekends, and we’ve seen convention pockets come in,” he said. “But we haven’t seen business travel coming back to downtown.”

To help balance this loss, Visit Indy is aggressively marketing the city for major events, including several that have never been to Indianapolis or that are being rescheduled for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

Besides PRI, several other big events, including Indiana Black Expo, National FFA and FDIC International, are on the schedule for next year. The same goes for Intervarsity, a church group that pledged to host its 2022 event in Indianapolis after the city performed the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament last spring.

And the National College Football Playoff Championship will kick off the year, assuming omicron doesn’t interfere. The CFP has issued an emergency plan to appoint a national champion without playing the game, if a team cannot play due to COVID.

“I hope the games continue,” said Patrick Tamm, CEO of the Indiana Restaurant & Lodging Association. “There was a lot of effort from the community to get ready for the game. All we can do is be ready to welcome fans like we did recently for the Big Ten Championship. “•