The not-so accidental tourist

2014-03-09T07:00:00Z The not-so accidental tourist nwitimes.com
March 09, 2014 7:00 am

As a tool for promoting economic and social development, tourism creates jobs and celebrates the unique attractions of a given area. Whether natural or manmade, it is most certainly the sum of these destinations that entices and defines the “travel experience” for tourists.

Charged with promoting Northwest Indiana as a centrally located, reasonably priced destination for business and leisure travelers, the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority (CVA) coordinates conventions, meetings, sporting events and group tours for organizations with members across the country and also recommends the area as an ideal weekend getaway option in any season for those within a 250-mile radius.

The growth of tourism in the last several years has stabilized the region’s economy and has provided many new jobs, according to South Shore CVA President and CEO Speros A. Batistatos. Currently, more than 14,000 people are employed in Lake County’s hospitality industry alone.

When tourists come, they stay and they spend.

Demonstrating the importance of telling Northwest Indiana’s unique story and positioning the region as an inviting host for visiting groups, South Shore CVA plays up our current strength – hosting events for 4,000-5,000 attendees that require no more than 35,000-40,000 square feet of space.

“Anything larger than that and unfortunately we are out of the game,” Batistatos explained. “The events we currently host are often the frosting on the “tourism” cake, but for now they are they cake.”

For example, the fact that Northwest Indiana has been the Salvation Army’s site for an annual meeting most of the last 30 years – the exception being those years when they sponsor a special regional event and are forced to find a larger convention center – translates to a total of 800-1,000 room nights, not to mention all the attendees who venture out to explore our communities at some point during their stay.

“We call them visible tourists,” Batistatos said. “By the virtue of the group they are attending with it makes it easy to see who they are.”

Whether it’s a Salvation Army uniform or the telltale painted cars that have been coming to the area from all over the country for the annual Lutheran Basketball Association’s National Championships during March Madness for nearly 40 years, these groups and many others are making a positive economic impact in Northwest Indiana thanks to the efforts of the South Shore CVA.

“We are proud to be the host the Lutheran Basketball Association’s tournament and have developed a great partnership with Valparaiso University over the decades,” Batistatos added. “When groups like this are here, local residents can see they are visitors making an economic impact in our hotels and restaurants, at our retail establishments and attractions.”

A few more highlights from a long list of returning events point to the need for more facilities – from a “regional” convention center to traditional meeting space and championship-ready athletic fields – along with the potential for economic return.

“One of our largest events is the National Softball Association's Girls Fast Pitch 'B' World Series,” Batistatos said. “With 900 participants plus their families, we’re looking at anywhere between 6,000-10,000 visitors for the week. We basically sell out all the hotels in the area for a total of 3,700 room nights with games played on fields in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. We’ve been the host of this event every other year for the past 8 years and are currently working to secure a contract for the next decade.”

Another recently revived longtime event receives national press coverage.

“Leon’s Triathlon is broadcast on ESPN and Comcast Sportsnet,” Batistatos explained. “It’s a very well known event with a cult-like following. With 149 room nights, it’s a Hammond tradition. Leon’s is the ‘world’s fastest’ Olympic distance triathlon with a .9-mile swim from Wolf Lake Park pier, a 24.8-mile biking loop on Cline Avenue (a closed six-lane freeway) and a 6.2-mile run that starts and ends at Wolf Lake Memorial Park. It’s very symbolic for the region.”

In addition, “Fitness Demo Day,” an interactive race expo designed to allow athletes, friends and all those attending Leon’s “World’s Fastest” Triathlon the opportunity to test drive and learn about the latest and greatest equipment from leading companies is now held the day before the big event.

New this year, the South Shore CVA secured a spot in the HOT ROD Magazine Power Tour’s “7 Cities in 7 Days.”

“We’re looking forward to about 2,500-3,000 participants and 1,000-1,500 room nights for this event at the Lake County Fairgrounds on June 11,” Batistatos said. “The tour travels 1,500 miles through seven states from Concord, NC to the Wisconsin Dells. We’re looking forward to being the stop in our area.”

Providing everything from A to Z when it comes to meeting and event planning, the South Shore CVA’s services run the gamut from housing services, registration assistance, tours and off-site event planning, transportation coordination and more.

“Our local partnerships expand economic opportunity throughout the area,” Batistatos added. “We use the latest technologies for marketing and social media including a housing system that’s the gold standard in the industry to set up room blocks and track every room – by property, the number of days visitors were here and the rate they paid. Along with using real time analytics to track performance, we can speak directly to our customers, providing very targeted offers while they are here and to encourage them to return for other special events such as Pierogi Fest, Popcorn Festival and Festival of the Lakes as well as all of our other seasonal celebrations, concerts and exhibits. Technology allows us to convert more leads to sales, capturing tourist dollars for far less investment than ever before.”

With the key to increasing revenues from tourists reliant upon how a destination capitalizes on its niche, the South Shore CVA works closely with its partners to ensure “what we’re selling is what we’re delivering” based on feedback about the destination, according to Batistatos.

“We can book ‘em and bring ‘em here all day, every day,” he said. “Along with the opportunity to enhance our services, the feedback shows us there’s definitely a need for additional and expanded facilities in our area.”

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