by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | June 01, 2015
On Feb. 3, 2015, an email popped up on the computer screen of Leonard Hoops, president and CEO of Visit Indy, the official destination marketing organization of Indianapolis. The message was from a staff member at the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, asking Hoops if his organization had yet taken a formal stand on a bill called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was making its way through Indiana's state legislature. This simple question proved a bombshell moment that would quickly enmesh the bureau in a fight to defend its destination's brand image -- and would serve as a textbook example of how DMOs can wield the power of economics to help affect legislation, politics and the public discourse of an entire nation.
The bill, in essence, said the government could not intrude on someone's religious liberty unless it could prove a compelling reason for doing so. Indiana's Republican Gov. Mike Pence had already indicated his intention to sign the measure into law.

"It was the first we had heard of it, so we immediately went to work researching what had been proposed," says Hoops. What he found was a number of legal experts who claimed the law, as written, could open the door to discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals by allowing any person or corporation to cite the measure as a defense for practices such as withholding services to someone based on a religion-dictated disapproval of his or her perceived lifestyle. These potential ramifications already had begun to stir calls for boycotts on doing business with the state.

"We saw the possibility that it would be seen as something incredibly negative," Hoops says. "We have no issue protecting religious liberties -- we just needed to make sure it couldn't be done in a discriminatory way." Three days after receiving the email from the ACLU, Visit Indy announced its opposition to the state's proposed RFRA law and set a damage-control plan into action.

A DMO On the Frontlines

Visit Indy's strategy was similar to tactics enacted by other destinations under the threat of boycotts: Create an army and mobilize it. Hoops and his team quickly took to the phones and began reaching out to clients, lawmakers, businesses, community leaders and basically anyone with a stake in Indianapolis' $4.4 billion meetings industry. The bureau closed ranks with its tourism partners, including the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Indiana Restaurant & Lodging Association, the Indiana Sports Commission and others.

They were armed with big data. Numbers for 2014 showed that the estimated 26 million visitors to Indianapolis had generated some $1.1 billion in tax receipts and were responsible for sustaining more than 75,000 full-time jobs in the state. "All of a sudden that economic data, which was just so many words on paper, becomes incredibly tangible," says Hoops. "Suddenly, legislators were keenly aware of how the meetings industry is vital to Indiana, the overall prosperity of the community and our brand."

Visit Indy's efforts were bolstered as a growing list of outside entities put additional pressure on the state government. For example, a fast-growing list of prominent CEOs, including the heads of Apple, Angie's List and Eli Lilly, wrote to state officials asking them to ensure that any passed legislation would not sanction or encourage discrimination, under threat of their reduced investment in the capital city and the state; and several large conventions, including the mega gaming gathering Gen Con, threatened to pull their events from the city.

Despite all the pushback, on Feb. 25 the Indiana Senate approved the proposal, as did the House on March 21. Four days later, Gov. Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law. But, of course, the story was far from over.