FILE - Downtown Indianapolis

Downtown Indianapolis

(The Center Square) – Indianapolis is getting ready to welcome only the second major trade show in the United States since the COVID-19 pandemic – a sign that business travel is starting to come back, that big gatherings are resuming and that the city of Indianapolis is in a position to profit.

From June 23-25 the Sweets and Snacks Expo will be at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, with 425 exhibitors and about 9,000 people in attendance.

The event, also called the “Candy Show,” is organized by the National Confectioners Association.

It has always been in Chicago, at McCormick Place, the largest convention center in the country. But McCormick Place has been closed to large events since the spring of 2020 because of COVID-19.

“While that might have just lifted, or is going to be lifted here soon, regardless, at the time of their decision late summer or early fall, the Sweets and Snacks Expo needed to know with certainty that, if they were going to host their trade show, it would be done in a place that was going to be open and safe and viable, and so we presented that as Indianapolis,” says Chris Gahl of Visit Indy, the city’s tourism bureau.

The statewide mask mandate in Indiana was rescinded in early April, and the local Indianapolis mask mandate will be gone June 7.

But even with mask mandates in place, Indianapolis managed to pull off a lot of events during the pandemic.

The Indiana Convention Center closed from mid-March to June, taking the time to do a $7 million health and safety upgrade. From the time it re-opened in July through this month, it has held 76 conventions and meetings, with a total of about 386,000 attendees.

Pre-pandemic, the convention center welcomed about 500 conventions, meetings and trade shows a year, with about 1.2 million people in attendance.

This year, the convention center has 221 scheduled events, says Gahl, including the “Candy Show” and a second large trade show in August --  the Wastewater Management and Equipment Trade show, with 8,000-10,000 attendees.

Trade shows are the most profitable events for the convention center, which is managed by the quasi-governmental Capital Improvement Board, which also manages Lucas Oil Stadium. They also bring the most hotel business into the city.

“When you look at Indianapolis and look back to the way a portion of our downtown was structured, it really was to host amateur sporting events and convention business,” says Sherry Seiwert of Downtown Indy.

The main venues – the convention center, Lucas Oil Stadium and Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the downtown and all the hotels are “all within a close proximity, all walkable,” she points out.

Gahl says Visit Indy is hoping, as things ramp up, to schedule more events, saying they’re looking “to fill the peaks and valleys in the convention calendar.”

The Indiana Convention Center is the 17th largest convention center in the country, with 11 exhibition halls.

Every event held there this year has to have a health and safety plan that is submitted to the Marion County Health Department, and approved.

The big sporting events held in Indianapolis have helped draw attention to the city, says Gahl, and give meeting-planners confidence that the city can handle the flow of people in and out, and space people out.

First it was the Big Ten conference championship, which was held without fans, but still involved more than 1,000 people coming in and out of the city in December.

The second was March Madness, with all NCAA tournament games held in Indiana for the first time, most in Indianapolis.

“That was additional proof of concept that we could safely bring people in and out the city and our airport and hotels and restaurants,” says Gahl.

Another proof of concept will be the Indianapolis 500, to take place May 30 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with fans in the stands for the first time in two years.