Numbers Game

Amanda Cecil

Larry Jinkins, Event Tourism graduate student in IUPUI’s School of Physical Education and Tourism Management (PETM), doesn’t look at festivals, fairs and marquee sporting events in quite the same way as regular folks. 

Instead of seeing them merely as destinations or entertainment, he visualizes the immense amount of research and data sifting that goes into making such large – and small, for that matter – events successful.

“For me it’s like going to a puppet show after I’ve seen how the puppets work behind the curtain,” Jinkins said. “I’m no longer concerned about the show itself. I’m more concerned about how the puppet master works the strings.”

He’s earned this insight because he’s on the verge of completing his Master of Science in Event Tourism – a rigorous PETM program that leverages Indianapolis’s reputation as a convention, events and sports hotbed to teach highly qualified students how to use information to enhance revenue for events, destination marketing organizations, and companies supporting the $4 billion central Indiana tourism industry.

“Putting on events like the Super Bowl or the NCAA Final Four requires a lot of different skills,” said Rafael Bahamonde, Associate Dean, School of Physical Education and Tourism Management. “Those are things that this program will provide.”

IUPUI students

The experience IUPUI students gain from being involved in major events, like the Super Bowl, make them more marketable as employees.

Using a mix of coursework and hands-on experience, graduates of the program, which began in 2011, gain a practical and theoretical understanding of not just of how to stage an event, but how to gauge its impact on the host community, from its environmental footprint to its long-term financial viability. All by learning how to gather, process and exploit the data necessary to define what “success” actually looks like.

“It’s about looking behind the scenes and seeing what’s going on,” Jinkins said. “I can look at festivals, sports venues and other projects and ask how they’ll sustain themselves over the long haul – not just say ‘That’s cool,’ and move on.”

The layman might be surprised to learn just how much data underpins the travel and tourism industry – and just how much useful information a tourism planning organization can cull from it. The trick is finding the right person for the job.

“There’s a lot of data that comes into these tourist organizations, and right now the big gap is that there’s not someone who understands data analysis and how to use it for decision-making,” said Amanda Cecil, Associate Professor and Program Director for the Department of Tourism, Conventions and Event Management.

The IUPUI program attempts to do just that via a two-year regimen featuring such specialized classes as Foundations of Event Tourism, Cultural Tourism Management, and Strategic Meeting Management. It’s all capped with a thesis. Not surprisingly, students who tackle the program can expect some interesting job opportunities after, and sometimes before, graduation.

“The goal is to put students in director-level positions in tourism organizations,” Cecil said. “Mainly around helping them with business strategies, data and research, to elevate how the organization makes decisions using solid research and analysis.”

The need for such sophisticated metrics has grown right along with the size and complexity of the tourism industry. For instance, more than three decades ago Indianapolis civic leaders decided to market the city as an amateur sports mecca. Research was of course done on the topic, but not a lot – simply because the data didn’t exist. The city succeeded in part because it was an “early adopter” in a field that was otherwise mostly empty.

But that’s far from the case today. In the US everyone from first-tier cities to rural counties and tiny towns vie for a portion of the tourism pie. Succeeding requires data-driven knowledge of the market. To do otherwise invites disaster.

“You see a lot of communities jumping into different strategies to develop tourism,” Bahamonde said. “Some have spent millions in developing various projects, and data is both guiding these decisions and being used to evaluate their effectiveness.”

“People want to make solid decisions and those decisions should be based on good data, good input, and getting the key stakeholders’ feedback on what should be done,” Cecil added. “If you’re going to do any new attraction facility, there must be a market analysis piece and a needs assessment piece. People aren’t willing to use their tax dollars anymore just on a good feeling.”

Which explains why Jinkins, who graduates this year (and is far into the home stretch on his thesis) was being tapped by municipalities almost from the moment he started the program. In the summer of 2012, shortly after he began his studies, the northern Indiana town of Whiting asked him to help develop a tourism plan for the community.

“This program was directly responsible for me getting that opportunity,” Jinkins said.

He’s writing his thesis about an aspect of the sports and tourism industries that indirectly illustrates the need for his services – the current national boom in youth sports parks. Counties and small towns around the country are building top-flight athletic facilities in hopes of turning them into regional amateur sports meccas. Trouble is, they sometimes do it without the sort of upfront statistical analysis that helps them determine if building, say, 20-diamond softball park in the middle of North Dakota is economically sustainable.

“Small communities are looking for something that will draw people and spend more dollars in their county and town, and they’re using sports to do it,” Jinkins said.

Using all available marketing information and data can help guard against an “If you build it they will come” mentality. In other words, simply creating an expensive facility and hoping that crowds, financing and the necessary ancillary infrastructure will follow.

“I will tell you that in my research on youth sport complexes that there is very little standardization around the measures consultants use to predict success,” Jinkins said “It is even more challenging to find solid information on the impact of such facility development.”

The Master of Science in Event Tourism program is an attempt to bring measurement and metrics to something that most people might not realize needs it. In actuality, however, there’s lots of data available – and lots of questions to apply it to.

“There’s all sorts of studies being done about the economic impact and sociocultural impact of tourism on a community,” Cecil said.

The program’s Indianapolis location is a definite plus, given that the city pretty much wrote the book on event tourism by bringing in everything from US Olympic trials to the Super Bowl to numberless NCAA championship events, including eight (so far) NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament Final Fours. IUPUI has aligned itself with numerous area tourism organizations to provide students with hands-on experience ranging from high-level volunteer positions to part-time and even full-time work. Its long list of partners, many of whose offices sit within walking distance of the IUPUI campus, includes the Indiana Sports Corporation, the Indiana Convention Center, the 500 Festival and Visit Indy.

“We have a core group of partners that our students can work directly with,” Cecil said. “We have so many opportunities within a mile or two radius of campus. We’re unique in that way. Other campuses can’t offer opportunities like we can at IUPUI.”

The program’s graduates for the most part haven’t strayed far from Indianapolis, having been quickly snapped up by central Indiana agencies. But as the number, and aspirations, of grads increases, that could change.

“There are always going to be opportunities here,” Cecil said. “But I can tell you that our students are also looking outside of Indianapolis. We’re hoping to position these individuals as a real benefit to communities.”

Cecil and Bahamonde agree that the program’s graduates are “all over the board” when it comes to after-degree employment – everything from convention and visitors bureaus to offices of economic development. Some have even become entrepreneurs who plan to start their own businesses.

“There’s a variety of career paths, but the common thread is that they bring a unique business lens to the organization, and that helps create good strategy,” Bahamonde said.

Interestingly, there are only a handful of programs worldwide that focus on event tourism – and only one other in the United States. For anyone equipped with the knowledge to use data to help develop tourism, this spells opportunity.

“There’s a lot of data that comes into these tourist organizations, and right now there’s not someone that has a great background in data analysis or in collecting good data and knowing how to use it for decision making,” Cecil said.

For his part, Jinkins isn’t quite sure what he’ll do when he wraps up his thesis this summer. He might work at IUPUI. Or perhaps seek a full-time position elsewhere. He’s also been asked to consult with various communities about tourism development, and also to help found a tourism-related business.

But whatever he decides, the ball is in his court.