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Meeting at the crossroads; what kinds of meetings and conventions are coming to Indiana?

Meeting at the Crossroads

Indiana's heartland location makes it a perfect spot for regional, national and international meetings of all types. The Hoosier capital is literally a crossroads.

"In fact, more interstates converge in Indianapolis than in any other place in the country," says Bob Desautels, convention services manager for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association. And with expansion plans under way at Indianapolis International Airport and a $16 million renovation recently completed at Fort Wayne's Baer Field, Indiana is sure to be an even more popular meeting spot in the future.

Meeting News magazine recently surveyed emerging U.S. cities that offer "first-class facilities at secondtier prices" and found Indianapolis to be one of a dozen leading the pack. But Indianapolis is not the only Indiana city that attracts major events, meetings andconventions. More and more planners are opting to bring their meetings to other Indiana cities. Evangelicals, doll collectors and business people are among the many types of conventioneers meeting at the crossroads.

What is the drawing card? For one thing, room rates at hotels are very affordable in all Indiana cities and towns, including Indianapolis, which is on the low end of all the charts that list the total cost per day for travel to major U.S. cities.

Competitively speaking, all of Indiana's cities and towns are in a buyer's market when it comes to seeking out meetings and conventions. Even though they offer many of the same amenities found in other cities--such as unique neighborhoods, historic sites, family recreational opportunities, settings for unusual theme parties, hearty cuisine and world-class museums--the cost is still considerably lower.

The proof is in the increased number of meetings. In Indianapolis, for example, the number rose from 30 in 1984 to 205 in 1989.

"Indianapolis attracts meeting-goers and conventioneers with its large convention facilities, a 'tight hotel package,' meaning that all downtown hotels are a short walk to the convention center, and fine restaurant and retail amenities," Desautels notes. Smaller cities and towns have their own unique drawing cards.

One of them is the intangible quality that is sometimes taken for granted: Hoosier hospitality. As part of the servicing effort, Hooser hospitality is often a deciding factor in attracting meeting business to the state. After all, Indiana doesn't offer 350 days of sunshine, mountain ranges or endless seashores. "People feel welcome here, and welcomed back," explains Desautels.

That's one of the leading factors that brings religious groups to the Hoosier state. "These groups can be a bit more critical of how they are treated," Desautels says. By the same token, the groups are said to be more cognizant of how they treat places where they convene.

DeWayne S. Woodring is the executive director and CEO of the Religious Conference Management Association. He says religious groups that he represents choose Indianapolis because of all the expected reasons such as central location, easy accessibility, exemplary facilities and variety of lodging options. "Religious planners also select Indianapolis because they feel welcome here," he adds, "because it is a clean, safe city offering the image that the groups seek for their conventions.

It probably doesn't hurt that a former Presbyterian minister, William H. Hudnut III, is a mayor of the capital city. It also helps that downtown merchants are willing to go the extra mile to cater to the needs of the gathered believers. For example, when the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists brought thousands of vegetarians to town, downtown menus featured more soybeans and eggplant than usual. Even the Big Macs could be ordered sans beef. And bartenders were happy to mix drinks without the liquor.

That types of attitude keeps business coming back, notes Doug Fields, director of sales and marketing for the Omni Severin Hotel in downtown Indianapolis. "I think that's why a lot of these types of conventions come to Indianapolis. Part of hoosier hospitality is being very flexible, noticing that some groups have specific needs."

Between 1985 and 1990, Indianapolis hosted almost 20 religious conventions, and about that many more are booked through 1997. The city has hosted so many that Newsweek magazine made note of the trend in a recent issue.

Some of the gatherings are enormous affairs. The North American Christian and National Missionary Convention, for instance, brought 40,000 believers in 1986 and plans to bring that many back in 1995. About 45,000 members of the Church of the Nazarene congregated under the Hoosier Dome in 1989, and the Adventist gathering last year attracted 50,000.

This year, Indianapolis will host the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches in June, United Pentecostal Church International in October, the annual Praise Gathering for Believers in October and the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry Conference in November.

One reason Indianapolis attracts such a variety of religious groups is the city's own religious diversity, says Michelle Peters, director of marketing and promotions at Hilton on the Circle and the Airport Hilton. "Indianapolis is not all protestant, not all Catholic, not all Jewish. The Nazarene convention came here, the Baptist convention came here, the Seventh-Day Adventist convention came here, and they all felt comfortable. We're religion-neutral."

Some of the large religious groups, however, don't want to meet in cities as big as Indianapolis. Smaller cities such as Anderson get the business instead, and for several reasons that have nothing to do with trends.

Anderson University, for instance, is affiliated with the Church of God. With the denomination's international headquarters there, Anderson is a natural for religious conventions. "Our hotel properties, restaurants and sports facilities have a great amount of experience working with the religious and sports tournament groups," says Lisa Haviland, tourism and sales coordinator for the Anderson-Madison County Visitors & Convention Bureau.

Each year in March, Anderson is host to some 1,700 Church of God ministers who fill all of the city's hotel rooms, along with the majority of Muncie's. Then in June, some 20,000 attendees convene for the International Church of God Convention.

Haviland points out that religious convention attendees are attracted to the university campus and the family-oriented atmosphere. The number one drawing card, however, is getting the best value for the dollar, since most attendees are paying their own way.

In Northern Indiana, the Michigan City Holiday Inn in LaPorte County will host the U.S. Postal Workers, Mary Kay Cosmetics and the state Red Cross convention this year, among others.

Fort Wayne's Grand Wayne Center lists several major events for 1991: This month, about 1,000 will attend a Gospel Fest and 1,500 will gather at the American Sampler convention, and the Festival of Arts and Music In Education will attract 1,500 in March. A 250-room Radisson Hotel will open this fall.

Porter County offers conventioneers a wide variety of meeting spots from the Porter County Exposition Center to the smaller facilities, such as the Carlton Lodge and Indian Oak Inn. Among those traveling to Porter County this year will be the Indiana Funeral directors Association and the Salvation Army.

In South Bend, the Century Center for years has been home to the International Collectibles Exposition, which attracts up to 15,000 people who collect limited-edition items like dolls and plates. Also on the bill is the gathering of the National Association of Campus Activities, and the U.S. Twirling Association will conduct a regional competition there.

The Radisson Star Plaza in Merrillville plays host to numerous small and mid-sized meetings and conventions. The All Canada Show last month attracted about 2,000, and in June about 1,500 members of the Salvation Army Congress will gather. Companies including Radio Shack and Service Master Products plan meetings at Radisson Star Plaza, as do fraternal organizations such as Zeta Phi Beta and Alpha Epsilon. Other groups on the way include the Indiana Association of Realtors, Indiana Clerks of Circuit Court and the Indiana State Board of Health.

Down in Southern Indiana on the Sunny Side of Louisville, the Clark/Floyd/Harrison Counties Convention & Visitors Bureau reports that it has booked a number of religious meetings and conventions this year: Dynamic Youth Ministries will congregate this month, the National Conference/Diocese Directors are scheduled in April, and Indiana Missionary Baptists are to gather in August. The area also is hosting a large delegation of Indiana Jaycees in August.

In Evansville, the Executive Inn, the Radisson Inn and the Holiday Inn are the sites of conventions throughout the year. In May, 700 delegates to the Indiana State Bar Association convention will converge upon the Executive Inn.

The Horizon Convention Center in downtown Muncie this year will play host to, among other groups, the Indiana Television Association, the Indiana Broadcasters and the Indiana Psychologists Association.
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Author:Faris, Charlene
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 1991
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