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Sports events drive city's tourism marketing plan

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Winning new tourism dollars for the Columbus economy might best be described as a marathon, not a sprint, and this fall a 26.2-mile running race could become the biggest draw of all community-spirited special events this year, city tourism officials say.

The Mill Race Marathon is on tap for Sept. 28 and could attract 6,500 runners and spectators, according to officials with the Columbus Visitors Center.

It’s the latest evidence of the key role that sports tourism is playing to boost travel and leisure spending in Bartholomew County.

“You can depend to a large extent on corporate travel to keep hotels busy during the weekdays, but on weekends small- to midsized groups and sporting events play a big part in what we do,” said Jim Dietz, director of sports marketing with the Columbus Visitors Center, an agency that works to bring conventions, special events and group meetings to town.

In addition to the Mill Race Marathon, a summer soccer tournament, slow-pitch softball for seniors and an amateur golf tournament at Otter Creek golf course are other examples of sports marketing in the year ahead that should capture tourism dollars.

The largest sporting event of the year likely will be the Mill Race Marathon, powered by Cummins, as marketing materials for the race say.

The Columbus-based engine manufacturer will act as chief sponsor with an assist from others such as MainSource Bank and Columbus Regional Health.

The idea for the marathon was hatched by Cummins last spring as a way to bring a major event to its hometown and promote healthy lifestyles. One initial snag was the fact that the proposed date of Sept. 28 created a conflict with the 16-year-old Mill Race Race, a 5- and 15-kilometer run that had long supported the Bartholomew County Healthy Communities Initiative spearheaded by the Columbus Regional Hospital Foundation.

“It was a little awkward at first, but as we worked through the details, it became a huge win for everybody,” said Randy Stafford, director of the Mill Race Race, who will help organize the marathon.

After a few meetings, Cummins and other community groups agreed to a three-year commitment, allowing the Mill Race Marathon to take over as the signature local track-and-field event from the shorter 5K and 15K runs, Stafford said.

The marathon will be an official qualifying event for the Boston Marathon. Plus, the Healthy Communities Initiative and Columbus Park Foundation will get a share of race proceeds.

Close behind as a sports event with an economic impact will be the State Cup Soccer Championships, coming to Columbus at the end of May.

That tournament for club soccer could bring as many as 5,400 players, parents and other family members to fill Bartholomew County’s 1,600 hotel rooms during three days of matches.

Sales totals to increase

Dietz and Becky Harper, director of sales at the Columbus Visitors Center, said bookings of group business, small conventions and special events this year are shaping up to at least match a strong 2012, and hoteliers are optimistic about early commitments for rooms.

Harper said she’s still recruiting two important events that could boost non-sports gatherings.

The targets are a conference by The Little People of America Inc., an association that provides educational and other support for dwarfs; and the Indiana Aviation Association convention.

Competition to land small conventions and sports tourneys has heated up in recent years.

Within Indiana alone, Columbus competes with such group meeting locations as Swan Lake Resort in Plymouth and with sports complexes such as the $28 million Sports Park in Elizabethtown, Ky., or the $45 million Grand Park in Westfield, among others.

This year, Dietz estimates Columbus will host more than 60 sporting events, from girls tennis tourneys to the Mill Race Marathon, which also will incorporate a half-marathon, a 5K race and a fun run for kids.

Meanwhile, in late June, the American Junior Golf Association will stage the Otter Creek Junior Classic here for boys and girls up to 17 years old. The national golf tournament, returning to Columbus for the first time in 20 years, will have a five-day run through July 4.

Near the end of July, 65 teams of slow-pitch softball players ages 50 and older will descend on Columbus for the Independent Softball Association Senior World Championships, an event that will attract nearly 800 players plus their families for four days.

Dietz said the softball group likes Columbus’ central location, meaning many teams will be able to drive here or fly into metropolitan airports in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Louisville.

“Especially with sporting events, a lot of bookings are last minute because teams have to qualify for events,” said Beth Harry, general manager at the Clarion Hotel & Conference Center.

She said she’s particularly optimistic about the marathon.

One advantage is that it is scheduled the last Saturday in September, generally a slow period for out-of-town guests.

“During the summer — May through August — you hope to sell out just about every weekend. But late September is normally slower. Hopefully the marathon will make it great for the community and great for me, too.”

Other draws

During the summer, sports probably represents about 30 percent of the Columbus area tourism business, especially on weekends, with architectural tours, small conventions, group meetings and individual leisure travelers also contributing to the economy.

Columbus’ stature as a hotbed of modern architectural sites attracts leisure travelers, as well as day-trip tour groups from large nearby cities such as Indianapolis and Louisville. Architecture also draws in college groups.

For example, Columbus will host 50 people from The Ohio State University Knowlton School of Architecture for three days next month and 50 Southern Illinois University architecture students later this month.

In July, the Association of Architecture Organizations will bring 50 people to town for four days. The National Trust for Historic Preservation visits in October.

Harry said Columbus is good at pulling off big events.

“Columbus is a very proud community, and we like to put on a big show,” she said.

The Clarion and other hotels often participate in special community events by joining package deals that provide guaranteed rooms or meals along with side trips to Bartholomew County attractions — perhaps a visit to the downtown Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor or a shopping trip to the Edinburgh Premium Outlets mall.

“With my size of hotel at the Clarion (a total of 253 rooms), we’re lucky because we’ve got the kind of meeting space that can host midsized conferences,” Harry added.

Among groups on tap for 2013 are the Indiana Rural Water Association, which will hold spring and winter meetings at the Clarion, bringing 200 or more participants each time.

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