The Conventional Wisdom Behind Indy’s Convention Center Upgrade

The city recently broke ground on the sixth expansion of the Indiana Convention Center, which will add a massive new hotel and almost 150,000 square feet to the giant complex. Is it enough to hold off the pack of challengers yearning for a slice of Indy’s booming convention traffic?
Renderings by Ratio Design/Courtesy Indiana Convention Center & Lucas Oil Stadium

THE ADDITIONS WILL TAKE UP MOST OF A CITYBLOCK.
In the summer of 2026 a new, four-story meeting and ballroom area will debut, along with a new hotel, the Signia by Hilton. Standing 40 stories tall and boasting 800 rooms, it will be the city’s tallest hostelry. All of this convention-y goodness will be plunked down on the former Pan American Plaza site. Its two ice rinks (leftovers from the 1987 Pan American Games) have already been demolished. However, the nearby 12-story Pan Am Tower gets to stay. For now.

POSH NEW AMENITIES ARE ON TAP.
The Signia hotel will have a luxury spa within the convention center expansion, meaning conventioneers with sore feet or aching backs will be able to walk, via skyway, straight into the spa to get some bodywork. Guests staying at the hotel can kick back in a rooftop pool, as well.

THE JW MARRIOTT MAY HAVE SOME COMPETITION.
Though a decision hasn’t been made yet, there is an option for the Signia to have windows that can be outfitted with decals touting big events, just like the Marriott. “You could have the JW Marriott with one message and image and the Signia with another message and image,” says Chris Gahl, Visit Indy’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. They could complement each other … or compete.

Renderings by Ratio Design/Courtesy Indiana Convention Center & Lucas Oil Stadium

IT’S GOING TO BE BIG. REALLY BIG.
Including Lucas Oil Stadium, the convention center complex offers 749,600 square feet of usable space under one roof. The new additions will add another 148,000 square feet. Though it’s approaching 1 million square feet in size, it will still sit in the shadows of the country’s elite convention facilities. For instance, Chicago’s McCormick Place covers 2.6 million square feet, and Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center covers 7 million square feet.

THIS ISN’T THE CONVENTION CENTER’S FIRST UPGRADE, BUT IT’S BEEN THE MOST DIFFICULT.
“We started advocating for this expansion in 2014,” shares Gahl. A drawn-out struggle to purchase the parking garage beneath the block snarled plans, as did the pandemic. Financing hurdles hit next. Since no one else would put up the funds, the city of Indianapolis stepped in and financed the project via the sale of $581 million in development bonds.

IT’S ALL TO GAIN A COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE.
Big conventions bring in big money, so to entice event organizers, cities across the country have been piling on amenities for convention-goers. Gahl figures this revamp will help Indianapolis retain about $3 billion in business that might otherwise have gone to Las Vegas, Orlando, or Dallas.

CONNECTIVITY WILL EARN INDY BONUS POINTS IN WINTER.
Signia’s debut will raise the number of hotel rooms connected to the convention center via skyways from the current 4,700 to 5,500, more than any other convention center in the country. Not having to step outside to go from hotel to convention is a boon during colder months. “One of Indy’s biggest selling points for attracting conventions and other events is our connectivity, so the more connected hotel rooms and other amenities we can offer, the more likely we are to win events,” says Indiana Convention Center & Lucas Oil Stadium’s capital improvement board executive director Andy Mallon. “We love stealing events from Chicago.”

Renderings by Ratio Design/Courtesy Indiana Convention Center & Lucas Oil Stadium

THE DEVELOPMENT PLANS HAVE ALREADY LANDED NEW BUSINESS.
Convention planners are booking all the way into 2038, believe it or not. Indianapolis has leveraged the promise of the new facilities to nab, among others, the American Dental Association gathering, which will pull in around 21,000 dentists in 2026.

THIS WON’T BE THE LAST, EITHER.
To stay competitive, upgrades are a fact of life. “In the next decade, Visit Indy will inevitably have to start the conversation on the seventh expansion,” Gahl says.

THE CITY’S NEED FOR CONVENTION DOLLARS MAY BE UNLIMITED, BUT SPACE IS NOT.
No vacant lots sit adjacent to the convention center, so expansion will be even trickier in the future. Tunnels could span railroad tracks south of the facility, accessing additional usable space, and there’s always the chunk of real estate the Pan Am Tower sits on.

A LITTLE MEANS A LOT.
Indianapolis routinely hosts gatherings of about 75,000 attendees right now, and the expansion will raise that to 100,000. This gives the city the ability to host 82 percent of the top 250 trade shows in the U.S., as opposed to 78 percent today. That may not sound like much, but it’s actually a tipping point in our favor, Gahl explains. “In that 4 percent, we gain the ability to attract bigger, more lucrative conventions.”