Not just a flyover: Tourism growth in state, county benefits local economies

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From food and music festivals, to unique shops and restaurants, to high-end golf courses and sports meccas such as Grand Park, out-of-state travelers are finding more reasons to visit Indiana.

Hamilton County is reaping the benefit of the state’s tourism growth while simultaneously strategizing its own ways to attract guests.

Financial gains

An Economic Impact of Tourism study done by Rockport Analytics shows 80 million people visited Indiana destinations in 2017, the most recent complete data set. The figure resulted in $12.7 billion of visitor spending. Out of every dollar spent on tourism, 72 cents stays in Indiana.

In Hamilton County, visitors added more than $820 million to the local economy, an 11.1 percent increase from 2016. Brenda Myers, president and CEO of Visit Hamilton County, said new and expanded hotels have been a major contributor to overall tourism growth.

“There are more opportunities and places for people to stay,” Myers said. “Hotels are not the biggest expenditure that a person makes on trips.”

The tourism impact study found visitor spending was mostly on food, beverage and retail. In addition, tourism supported 11,553 Indiana jobs, including those at hotels, restaurants and attractions.

Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard said the Palladium is the city’s top destination for out-of-town guests.

“We’ve chosen to do a lot of our economic development around the arts, and it’s worked out really well for us,” he said. “We have people from every state and many foreign countries that have been here, stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, shop in our retail stores. It helps our small businesses.”

Amenities such as the Waterpark Monon Community Center help attract visitors to Carmel. (File photo)

A layered market

According to Myers, Visit Hamilton County uses data reports to track hotel room sales and conducts advertising effectiveness studies twice annually. She said business travel, leisure and youth sports are major drivers for Hamilton County visitors. Top of mind for visitors are the Carmel Performing Arts Center, Grand Park, Conner Prairie and the Monon Community Center. Art and music festivals, marathons, bike races and other unique events also are piquing visitor interest.

Many people also include Indianapolis attractions on their itinerary, such as conventions, zoos and museums.

“They don’t come just to stay north of 96th street,” Myers said. “It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

The county sees differing types of visitors, depending on the day of the week. When Indianapolis hotel rooms are booked during a convention, north side hotels and restaurants accommodate the overflow. On weekends, leisure travelers and the families of traveling athletes are more likely to be in town.

“The thing that’s so great about the Hamilton County market is we are so layered in our types of visitors,” Myers said. “It helps us be more resilient.”

Smart advertising

Myers said Visit Hamilton County believes in a combination of web-based marketing and traditional advertising, like print and radio.

“When you look at the complexity of the market, it requires different channels of communication, different messages across multiple platforms,” Myers said. “What we’re doing is working, and that’s exciting.”

A Visit Hamilton County marketing campaign portraying the county as a weekend getaway destination earned Indiana Tourism Association’s “Best Leisure Marketing Campaign” at a state tourism conference in March.

The spring and fall campaign, targeted to the Chicago market, generated $62 million in visitor spending in the county.

Myers said her staff works hard to stay on top of the latest digital campaigns. When Google launched Google Travel, the team decided to embrace it instead of thinking of it as a competitor. They spent time uploading Hamilton County information, focusing on what they want outsiders to see first. The result is a visually appealing and comprehensive list of attractions and amenities that appear in Google searches.

“That’s just the kind of thing that my team amazes me about all the time,” Myers said. “They figure out how to position us in the market. That has really returned for us.”

Visit Hamilton County has staff members available to teach business owners how to optimize their online visibility.

“It really helps us if everybody else is doing well, too,” Myers said.

The organization decided 15 years ago to invest in “key products,” or attractions and amenities throughout the county.

“Grand Park is one of the biggest things we invested in. We’ve also helped Connor Prairie,” Myers said. “It’s really rewarding and exciting. Sometimes these things take a while to return, but when they do it’s so much fun.”

Local tourism by-the-numbers

  • 72 cents – The amount of every dollar spent in Indiana on tourism that stays in the state
  • 11,553 – Jobs supported by tourism (hotels, restaurants, etc.) in Indiana
  • $62 million – Spending generated in the region by a Visit Hamilton County marketing campaign portraying the county as a weekend getaway destination earned Indiana Tourism Association’s “Best Leisure Marketing Campaign” at a state tourism conference in March.
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