Thirtieth wedding anniversaries are traditionally celebrated with pearls.
Just as lustrous pearls are formed when a single grain of sand enters a shell to be nurtured over time with layers and layers of nacre – the crystalline substance known as mother-of-pearl – the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority (CVA) has been leading the charge to revitalize the local economy by making Northwest Indiana a place where people not only want to live and work but also want to visit for business and leisure travel.
Over the past 30 years, the South Shore CVA (formerly the Lake County Convention and Visitors Bureau) has embraced a new mantra: built by steel, changed by tourism.
“Heavy industry carried the local economy for decades,” South Shore CVA President and CEO Speros A. Batistatos, said. “But now it’s the people who invest in local businesses that make our communities viable, and the South Shore is a great place to invest. We clearly have the best convergence of highway, rail, shipping and air transportation in the country, and just as the Great Lakes are this nation’s greatest resource, Lake Michigan is this state’s. People are definitely starting to take notice.”
Established by Indiana’s General Assembly in 1983, Donald Thompson, Bryan Marshall and Carolyn McCormick preceded Batistatos as Executive Director of the local hospitality and tourism entity before he originally came on board in 1989. Along with producing the organization’s first visitor brochure, the early leaders also secured the Indiana Men’s State Bowling Tournament in 1986.
“Regardless of our budget and staff size, we are innovators,” Batistatos, who led the team for 12 years prior to spreading his wings for a brief stint on the Atlantic City boardwalk, said. “We brought the Gus Macker 3-on-3 basketball tournament to the area for nine years starting in 1991. A few years later we hosted the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) National Cross Country Championship followed by the AAU Indoor Track and Field Championship from 1996 to 2009.”
Also during that time, the visitor brochure was expanded to a full-size, four-color guide, the state awarded Lake County four gaming licenses with Gary’s Majestic Star Casino first to open in 1996, and the Indiana Welcome Center, with office space for the hospitality and tourism team plus The John Dillinger Museum and a multi-purpose exhibition hall, opened in 1999.
When Batistatos left the organization in 2001, James Tsismanakis was named President and CEO. Under his watch, the area hosted the nationally televised Miss USA Pageant in 2001 and 2002 at the Genesis Convention Center in Gary.
“One of the lessons I learned in Atlantic City was bigger isn’t better,” Batistatos, who was rehired in 2005, said. “They had amazing opportunities and great tools in their toolbox, but it just didn’t make a difference because there was no culture, no cohesion, no sense of pride. I wanted to come back and work with the people here. Our people are better. They know we have to do a better job with less. When you look at the resources of an Atlantic City or our neighbors in Chicago or Indianapolis, it would be easy to be envious of that. I’ve been at the helm for 21 of those 30 years, and we’ve accomplished a great deal. Just look at our exciting new website and geocentric-based custom mobile site.”
Along with marketing the region as a destination for families, providing the traveling public with all the details they need on attractions, hotels, restaurants, shops and parks, the South Shore CVA also assists in the planning and execution of group meetings, conventions and amateur sporting events.
Just last year, the South Shore CVA helped bring more than 10,000 attendees to the region through meetings and conventions, translating to over 10,000 hotel room nights and an estimated $2.6 million in economic impact. They also helped attract 21,405 participants to sports events in the region, translating to 9,033 hotel room nights and $2.3 million in estimated economic impact. Their interactive marketing efforts have attracted 119,790 visitors to their website and their Facebook page has 3,333 likes for their many events.
While continuing to promote activities and events for visitors and residents of the region, the South Shore CVA also developed a fabulous tour of all the summer hotspots – 30 Stops in 30 Days – as well as a noteworthy tribute to the people who have made a significant impact on their industry – 30 Faces of Tourism.
“What better way to celebrate our 30th anniversary than to honor our partners who place a very high value on services we provide throughout the five counties we serve,” Batistatos said. “It was very gratifying to have such strong support from the business community, with a great mix of public and private entities. They also embraced our promotion with generous gifts for the public at each and every stop along the way.”
With stops from the Aquatic Play Center in Hammond’s Wolf Lake Memorial Park, Shady Creek Winery in Michigan City and the Adventure Center of Fair Oaks Farms to West Beach in the Indiana Dunes there was certainly something for everyone to join in the fun. Plus, sponsor Family Express gave away $25 gift cards daily, with one grand prize winner awarded a $2,000 card on the final day.
“One of the by-products of the tour was that it allowed people to experience the product we have been seeing for all these 30 years, and I think they also got a new appreciation for what we do,” Batistatos added. “As much fun as we had creating a calendar of great events to visit, whittling down the names of all the legends and legacies who have impacted our industry to just 30 was an extremely difficult task.
“There were at least a hundred other noteworthy people we considered. But, in the end, I think we came up with a great mix that includes Congressman Pete Visclosky, who truly sees the value in reclaiming and revitalizing the Lake Michigan shoreline, and Steve Teibel, a third generation restaurant owner whose family has been feeding generations of residents and visitors, Bill Wellman, a true pioneer who has forgotten more about hospitality than I could ever know, and a relative newcomer in Gordon “Big Daddy” Biffle, who took a leap of faith in this economy to expand his business.”
With an eye on the future, Batistatos looks forward to the South Shore CVA making a lot more contributions to the local economy, jobs and our communities.
“Our track record shows what happens if you invest the money to bring people here,” he said. “There’s definitely a strong movement afoot right now, and we’re happy to play a small role in that. Our voice is the glue that brings all these small businesses together. That’s why they are all so supportive and work with us no matter what community they are from.”