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High-tech hoosier hospitality; Indiana's state-of-the-art meeting places.

High-Tech Hoosier Hospitality

Few would have predicted as recently as 10 years ago that Indiana would emerge as a leading high-tech meetings and conventions destination. Back in the '70s, there wasn't a clue that the Hoosier state would be competitive in the convention business.

But in the past decade, Indiana cities have developed some of the nation's finest, most up-to-date meeting facilities, and some of the best hotel accommodations as well. The state has become one of the major players in the growing high-tech meetings and conventions industry.

How do Indiana's meeting places garner such business? A factor that hasn't changed is the bottom line: Indiana is a hospitable place where facilities are reasonably priced. What has changed is the technology: Indiana's major conference sites are offering conferees and attendees state-of-the-art facilities for transmitting, receiving and displaying information.

"We get a lot of requests for very sophisticated, top-of-the-line video capabilities, large-screen presentations, rear-screen projection," notes Sandra Lee, director of sales at Century Center in South Bend.

It used to be that mostly local, state and regional groups held meetings in Indiana. These groups had little need for high-tech facilities. Indiana's hotels and meeting facilities still cater to in-state business, but the state has enjoyed such an increase in larger meetings and conventions that its traditional establishments have been joined by a number of newer high-tech meeting facilities and hotels.

Take Indianapolis, for example. The number of conventions booked by the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association increased by more than four times from 1985 through the end of 1989. And the number of delegates and hotel room-nights almost tripled.

"What the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association accomplished in 1989 was the capping of an aggressive five-year effort, one that has provided conclusive evidence that convention and visitor business is on a path that is climbing ever higher each year," states William K. McGowan Jr., president and CEO of the ICVA.

Indiana was not alone in enjoying growth in the meetings business; the nation's meetings business as a whole also experienced an unprecedented rate of growth during the '80s. The 1990 Meetings Market Study by Reed Travel Group, which publishes Meetings and Conventions magazine, revealed that attendance increased 70 percent nationwide during the past decade.

Indiana has taken advantage of the boom by offering many facilities that are on the cutting edge for making meetings or conventions as productive as possible. With the nature of business constantly changing and the Information Age making meetings more necessary than ever, Indiana's facilities realize the importance of keeping ahead of the pack, and the results are being noted. Recently, Indianapolis was listed in Meeting News magazine as one of a dozen emerging cities that were favorites of planners who demand first-class facilities at second-tier prices.

So how are Indiana's high-tech facilities drawing more meeting planners and business people to Indiana? As with anything else, it takes a sales effort. The capital city, for example, touts its University Place Executive Conference Center and Hotel on the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. University Place is what is known in the meetings industry as a "dedicated conference" center.

A dedicated conference center uses technology to put anything and everything at the conferee's or attendee's fingertips. This type of facility specializes strictly in the meetings business. It offers a distraction-free, full-service meeting environment complemented by luxurious guest rooms, dining establishments and recreational opportunities.

The drawing card for the dedicated conference facility, depending upon the needs and wants of the meeting planner, is that it is a "one-stop shop." Meetings industry experts call them that because a wide variety of services are included in various available packages, all for one price.

What one center calls a "one-stop shop" may differ considerably from another center's definition. Some that don't have a permanent satellite downlink, for instance, may market themselves as a one-stop shop, while others consider a downlink to be a major component of their one-stop shops. Bear in mind that these facilities use different strategies to market their high-tech facilities. To know exactly what is available, ask.

A center such as University Place leaves no stone unturned when planning a meeting, proclaims John D. Short, the center's director. "When an organization comes to us with an idea for a meeting," he says, "we can take over development, promotion, management and administration, delivering them a complete conference." At University Place, there are more than 30 meeting rooms of various sizes with a total of approximately 30,000 square feet of space. The center offers the latest in audiovisual equipment. Three full-time and four part-time technicians are at the planner's beck and call.

Because of its advanced communications technology, CBS Sports chose University Place as its world broadcast headquarters during the 1987 Pan American Games. CBS was the first client to use the facility's interactive videoconferencing network, which connects participants by satellite. University Place's auditorium was the communications center, because it is set up much like a production studio. Its fiber-optic system has the capability of teleconferencing by voice or video to anywhere in the world.

"If a group cannot afford to have a speaker such as Sen. Richard Lugar or Vice President Dan Quayle come in for a conference, it is possible to bring them in on satellite from their offices in Washington, New York or anywhere in the world," Short explains.

At University Place, walls are soundproof, conferees are in control of the lighting and sound systems, a technician is available at all times and attendees can sit comfortably for hours in the ergonomically designed chairs in each meeting room. In addition, there is a computer lab with personal computers that are networked. There's an auditorium where any kind of equipment can be "patched in" to the sound board.

There are four translation booths, and conferees can receive six translated languages. Several of the meeting rooms have audience response systems for participants to respond discreetly from a keypad. And University Place offers what the industry calls high-end professional equipment--as opposed to consumer equipment--for projecting images.

There are only two or three conference centers like University Place in the Midwest, according to Charles Moore, manager of technical services at the center. Moreover, University Place is conveniently located, just 12 minutes from Indianapolis International Airport. Being downtown, it is close to fine restaurants, Union Station, the Indianapolis Symphony and other cultural activities, the Indianapolis Zoo and museums.

The needs of high-tech conventiongoers don't stop with state-of-the-art facilities, however. For that reason, University Place operates a hotel that has earned the American Automobile Association's 4-Diamond rating, with 278 elegant guest rooms, fine restaurants and a museum-quality art collection. Guests at University Place have privileges at the Indiana University Natatorium on the IUPUI campus, where there is an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a gym and weight rooms. University Place has another advantage to offer: It draws upon the resources of the two major universities, Indiana University and Purdue University.

Though University Place was the state's first dedicated conference facility, Fort Wayne's Grand Wayne Center also is in the vanguard, having been expressly designed for meetings and conventions. Grand Wayne Center opened in 1985. Today, according to Jim Yarnellee, the center's marketing director, Grand Wayne Center is one of the most competitive in the nation. Since it is run by a not-for-profit operation, it offers some of the lowest rates in the country, which is a definite advantage in the marketplace. "Some of our space is rented for as low as 5 1/4 cents per square foot," says Yarnelle.

Grand Wayne Center has the advantage of being located in downtown Fort Wayne. It is a short drive from Baer Field, which is serviced by several major air carriers. The center offers 36,000 square feet of meeting space, a25,000-square-foot exhibit hall, two ballrooms and a boardroom. This dedicated conference facility is linked by a glass-in skywalk to the Fort Wayne Hilton, which is part of themeeting complex.

The grand Wayne Center services groups from 20 to 2,000 people. The Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory and the restored 1920s Embassy Theatre, which are part of the skywalk system, are available for special activities. What makes Grand Wayne Center stand out in terms of its high-tech capabilities is its state-of-the-art sound capability. It has 13 individual subsystems that are controlled by a routing computer. They are equalized to provide natural sound without feedback. Each meeting room has digital delay lines so that sound will come from a computer-assigned position anywhere in the room.

Other attributes, says Yarnelle, include 52 telephone jacks that can be put into service as computer hookups on 24-hour notice. The center also retains a sound and light technician and provides meeting planners with radios for communicating with its staff. The center has the basics, or what is called the "infrstructure" in this industry, so that when new high-tech developments become available, it can add them easily.

Teleconferencing is a need that clients are expressing more often these days. Many facilities can offer such services, evenif they don't have the necessary satellite communications systems permanently installed. In Evansville, for instance, convention facilities have from time to time arranged teleconferencing with the local public television station or University of Southern Indiana.

Purdue University's Stewart Center is oneof the four largest university-related conference centers in the United States. In its Edward C. Elliott Hall of Music, just about anything can be done. "Purdue has an uplink and a downlink system via satellite for sending programs to anywhere in the world," says Gary Lee, director of conferences at Purdue. "I can't recall ever being stumped and not having what was needed," he adds.

Century Center in South Bend also has been able to meet whatever needs have arisen thus far, says Sandra Lee, the sales director. "A big percentage is equipment that we have in-house. We have an extensive audiovisual list."

Lee also says she's seen an increase in the number of organizations whose high-tech needs are so specialized that they choose to bring their own equipment. "A lot of larger corporations that have meetings around the country contract with companies out of Chicago and New York. Sometimes it will be a combination of their own equipment and we supplement that."

Hotels throughout the state can provide audiovisual and teleconferencing services, though some rent equipment as needed rather than keep a permanent setup. The Omni Severin Hotel in downtown Indianapolis, for example, hosts receptions and smaller meetings and therefore doesn't get as many calls for high-tech services beyond its sound system and computer hookups, says Doug Fields, director of sales and marketing.

Danielle Riggins, director of sales at the Holiday Inn Conference Center in Columbus, says her facility can rent equipment as needed to provide teleconferencing.

The center also has numberous services that are permanently installed: "We have eight levels of computerized lighting, 24 microphone outlets that work independently without feedback, built-in screens and computer hookups." This center can host groups of up to 500 people.

Most of the industry experts across the state agree that--high-tech or not--good old Hoosier hospitality is a big draw. More formally, it's knwon as "service." And serving client needs is a top priority in the industry.

"We have to create a niche, and we think our niche is really making sure we satisfy the customer," Russ Sloan, president of the Muncie-Delaware County Chamber of Commerce, says about Muncie's Horizon Convention Center.

The center is less than three years old, and as such has state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment, Sloan notes, but service is just as important. Horizon adds to its service image by not charging extra for its high-tech services, he says.

Roger DePoy, director of operations at Century Center in South Bend, agrees that service is still one of the most important considerations, even in the days of high-tech. "You can have all the nuts, bolts, gadgets and toys in the world in a high-tech operation, but you must provide good service first."
COPYRIGHT 1991 Curtis Magazine Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Faris, Charlene
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 1991
Previous Article:Real estate around the state.
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