The State Of Indy’s Convention Industry

Tourism, as Visit Indy senior vice president of marketing Chris Gahl puts it, “has come to a screeching halt.”

Photography by Todd Urban

Expected to draw a total of 150,000 fans, gamers, and cosplayers to Indy from all over the world in June and July, Pop Con, Comic Con, and the big one, Gen Con, were among more than 700 conventions booked for 2020. But as the masks change from mythical to medical, Indy’s convention business is becoming increasingly unsteady.

Tourism is at a standstill. Visit Indy was expecting to surpass even last year’s record-breaking numbers of 30 million visitors from around the globe coming to Indianapolis, which generated $5.6 billion in economic impact. But as big events such as Gen Con cancelled due to COVID-19, it quickly became apparent that it was going to be a disastrous year. Tourism, as senior vice president of marketing Chris Gahl puts it, “has come to a screeching halt.”

Repairing Indy’s convention schedule is like a big game of Tetris. Only the colorful blocks are dates and venues, and Gahl is struggling to patch them back together. “We’re trying to fit as many convention pieces in place as we can still yet in 2020, while moving other pieces to 2021 and beyond,” he says. “It’s a difficult game, because each comes with its own contract and its own challenges. We’re working around the clock to try to move conventions from canceling to postponements.”

Although Pop Con and Comic Con have stayed on the books until late in the game, Gen Con’s cancellation shows how hard it is to hold these kinds of functions. Even if social-distancing guidelines change, it’s unclear whether it will be safe for the remaining conventions to proceed. Pop Con cofounder Carl Doninger says restrictions could start to lift slowly to allow groups of up to 250 to convene—not nearly enough for events that bring in thousands of attendees.

It’s another entire industry at risk. Doninger says Pop Con hosts hundreds of artisans and vendors that count on a busy convention season for their income. “It’s just a huge tidal wave of people not being able to do what helps them survive throughout the year,” Doninger says, “so it’s a pretty big disruption inside the pop-culture event industry as a whole.”

Not all conventions are created equal. Bruce Jaffee, a professor emeritus at IU Kelley School of Business, says some events can be retained, like Gen Con, which is committed to the city through 2026 even though a 2020 gathering won’t happen. Other events, like the NCAA regional basketball championship, will simply be lost. For conventions like Pop Con, a cancellation could mean financial ruin. Online tabletop games or Face-Timing with a celebrity could be the convention of the future.

Ring ring, it’s … Captain America calling. Doninger says some conventions are exploring online events and selling video calls with their scheduled celebrity lineup to recoup losses.

We won’t know the cost until it’s over. While Indy is feeling some hefty losses in revenue from canceled gatherings, Gahl says crunching the numbers will take time. “Its impact, financially, won’t be able to be calculated until months from now, when we have some clean air to welcome visitors back and can assess the damage.”

Don’t throw away your homemade Harley Quinn outfit just yet. Jaffee predicts a drop in convention attendance over the next two years as a result of safety concerns, alternative online events, and ticket costs in a post-coronavirus economy. But! “Three years from now,” he says, “things will be pretty close to back to normal.”