Last week, the sidewalks of downtown Indianapolis were packed with students from across the country for the four-day 95th annual FFA convention, which was attended by more than 69,000 people.
“For our convention, this actually feels like a year before the pandemic,” said Mandy Hazlitt, deputy director of meetings and events for the National FFA Organization. “We were able to bring back the last year we had in our convention. Events that cannot be attended in person.”
The Indiana Convention Center had nearly 1.3 million visitors through the end of September, marking an almost complete recovery in one of the city’s most important industries. That’s roughly the same number of people the center hosted in 2019 at the time, and a big jump from the 230,000 the center hosted in 2020 and 840,000 in 2021.
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By the first few months of next year, “Indianapolis will likely announce a more than 100 percent recovery from the pandemic,” said Chris Gale, administrator of the tourism nonprofit Visit Indy. Hotel occupancy rates are still slightly lower than the year before the pandemic.
According to Visit Indy, the economic impact of meeting travel was about $855 million in the first nine months of the year, a sharp increase from $519 million in the same period last year.
In 2022, hotel occupancy in Marion County will be approximately 62 percent from January to August, an important measure of the health of the tourism economy. In 2019, the ratio was around 66% for that time frame.
The city has roughly doubled the number of events to 535 this year compared to 2021, Gahl said.
Indianapolis has made several big bets during the pandemic to keep the event industry open, while other cities have restricted large gatherings to prevent outbreaks. The decision won some new business for the city and boosted a struggling industry.
The health consequences are unclear because the state has not tracked major outbreaks.
The Sweets n’ Snacks Expo, a convention usually held in Chicago, is temporarily relocating to Indianapolis in 2021 as Chicago doesn’t allow gatherings that year. Soon after, the group announced that it would split its time between Las Vegas and Indianapolis starting in 2024.
Likewise, Gahl said, organizers of a religious group decided to host a historic March Madness in Indianapolis, when the city hosted every game in the competition.
Over the past few decades, the city has invested heavily in its conference business, expanding the center and adding hotel rooms. By the end of the year, the developers of the convention center’s sixth expansion will break ground. The plan is to add about 200,000 square feet of space by 2025, including a ballroom and an 800-room hotel, according to Marion County officials.
Concerts and shows are also making a comeback, with big shows like country singer Carrie Underwood and singer-rapper Lizzo attracting thousands of fans, said Don McFarlane, a union representative representing the stage crew.
“We’ve been very busy,” McFarland said. It’s only in the past few months that business has been in full swing, he said.
The event business started to pick up after restrictions were lifted as the vaccine slowly became widely available.
But the city’s road to recovery has been bumpy and contentious.
As the city hosts the three-week NCAA tournament, some cheered Indianapolis for hosting one of the biggest sporting events in the city’s history. Others have criticized event planners for risking Indians’ health as vaccines are becoming widely available.
A popular bartender at St. Elmo’s Steak House has died after contracting COVID-19 during the game.
Since then, vaccines have become widely available. The concert is sold out. While restrictions have eased and some event organizers have waived mask requirements, COVID-19 cases are still surging across the country.
Next year, the city expects to host more than 500 events.
Binghui Wong can be contacted at 317-385-1595 or by email at [email protected]