Odd man out 

Sotiris Avgoustis attempts to share his data

Sotiris Avgoustis attempts to share his data
Sotiris Avgoustis is frustrated. Avgoustis is a PhD. and Assistant Professor in IUPUI"s Department of Tourism, Conventions and Event Management. For almost five years now he"s been studying Indianapolis - what attracts people to this city and what they think of it. Whenever the city hosts a major event, like the World Basketball Games or the Jazz Fest, Avgoustis and his team are there, asking people - locals and out-of-towners - to evaluate the Indianapolis experience. As he puts it, "I did more studies and talked to more people than anybody else in the city."
"I did more studies and talked to more people than anybody else in the city."
Avgoustis also considers himself a supporter of Mayor Peterson"s cultural tourism initiative. "I think the cultural tourism initiative is the only direction that we have available to move to the next level to make Indianapolis a great city," he says. Yet, according to Avgoustis, the people in charge of the cultural tourism initiative have brushed aside his offers of help. He characterizes his attempts to establish a relationship with the CulturalDevelopment Commission, the board appointed to oversee the city"s cultural efforts, as "extremely difficult." "When I heard about the tourism initiative I had two meetings with people who were directly responsible for the initiative and I offered my services in any way possible," Avgoustis recalls of meetings he had with Keira Amstutz of the Mayor"s office and Marty Peters, the head of the CulturalDevelopment Commission. "I didn"t expect any compensation out of that because that"s my passion. That"s what I want to do. I offered my research, my students to do research for them - and it"s like running against a brick wall. I couldn"t do anything." Patterns emerging Avgoustis" research tries to identify what motivates people to travel to a particular destination. "What"s attractive to them? It can be a specific event or it can be friendly people or somewhere where it"s safe or close to home. We come up with the factors that made them decide to select Indianapolis and then we use those factors and ask them to evaluate Indianapolis on each one. If they came here because they thought the people were friendly, how did we rank in that area? Or if they came here because of our Children"s Museum, how did we rank in that area?" What Avgoustis finds striking about his work thus far is that it doesn"t matter who he"s talking to - Jazz Fest fans or people attending the World Police and Fire Games - the city"s strengths and weaknesses generally turn out to be the same in the eyes of all groups. Though Avgoustis emphasizes that he thinks more studies need to be done before anything can be stated with certainty, he does see a major pattern emerging. "The biggest surprise," he says, " is that there are no surprises from the studies. The same pattern over and over and over." Indianapolis is consistently rated high in certain areas: "Friendly local people shows up. Indianapolis is considered a safe destination. A lot of good tourist information - which means ICVA (Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association) - is doing a good job. The state tourism office is doing a good job. People getting information about Indianapolis know how to access that. We have a variety of hotels, anywhere from economy to luxury, so they like that. We are a clean city." But Indianapolis consistently scores poorly in some areas that people consider to be important. "They don"t think Indianapolis offers a lot of activities that are fun and entertaining," says Avgoustis. "Indianapolis, from my research, is a destination based on a model that describes us as a city that attracts people for a specific event. They don"t come here because of our natural beauty. They don"t come here because they just want to see Indianapolis. They come here because something else is going on - and while they"re here they want to explore." The problem - or challenge - for Indianapolis is that the city"s attractions are pretty much like those found in most other cities of similar size. This is especially true, says Avgoustis, when it comes to arts and culture. "People don"t come to Indianapolis because they expect to have an enriching experience in that area. Then, when they are here and they have an opportunity to see what we have, they are not happy with it. We don"t attract people who are exploring new opportunities in this arena and then when we ask them what do you think of our cultural offerings, they don"t like them." These findings, says Avgoustis, should be taken into account by those planning the cultural initiative. "I"m probably one of the stronger proponents of the initiative," he stresses. "It"s something the city needs to go after. I just don"t think we did our homework " Supply Ö or demand? The cultural initiative, of course, derives its rationale, in part, from demographic and marketing studies, some of which have been commissioned by the city working with the Arts Council of Indianapolis. "When you look at the sample size and some of the questions, you start to wonder how useful is the information they provide to us," notes Avgoustis, who says one of the biggest problems in this area is first coming to a working definition of what cultural tourism is. "If you ask people to define cultural tourism, you get very different responses. You may be talking about fine art or you may be talking about an ethnic festival or you may be talking about a family reunion. Avgoustis continues: "As a whole, the people who come here are the ones who have a choice to go somewhere else if another city is offering a similar or better event. We have to have a movement that will build on the supply we have right now ÖWe don"t have anything they want that they can"t find somewhere else. Some people don"t like me to say that, but that"s the truth. "If, by improving the arts in the city, we offer new experiences to people - and at the same time, if we somehow find a way to join all those together so people can go from point A to point B through public transportation, we have our product. "There are two ways to approach this. You either take a supply-oriented strategy where you have existing products and we do our best to sell them to the visitors, or we take a demand-oriented approach and try to find out what they want. That"s what I"m trying to do." The cultural initiative is important, Avgoustis contends, because tourism has become one of the city"s few real growth industries. Downtown Indianapolis hasn"t enjoyed a boom in new types of businesses or jobs. But tourism, thanks particularly to conventions, has kept the downtown viable. "The heart of the city is the downtown area and we have to keep building on that, otherwise Indianapolis will no longer exist," asserts Avgoustis. "If we all move to the suburbs and neglect downtown it"s not going to work. Though tourism has become an increasingly important item to policy makers, Indiana still lags behind in what it is willing to spend on efforts like the cultural initiative. "If you compare how much the state and city are spending to promote tourism versus surrounding states, we"re doing a very poor job," laments Avgoustis. "We cannot compete with Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. But it takes more than investment in tourism. We"re talking about investing in the downtown area to make it more attractive to Indianapolis residents." Avgoustis strongly agrees with the Mayor that cultural tourism isn"t only about attracting out-of-towners. In order to be effective, a cultural initiative must also reintroduce the city and what it has to offer to the people who already live here. "If we"re able to make it easy for residents to spend a Sunday in downtown Indianapolis and be able to go from one museum to the next activity or site without having to get in the car and drive, then we will be in better shape. We have a beautiful downtown area, it"s just that people never have the chance to go from one place to another unless they"re driving." Politics Cultural development officials have frequently compared the cultural initiative with the city"s previous campaign to become known as an amateur sports capital. This concerns Avgustis because he believes the analogy is dangerously imprecise. "You cannot compare those two. It"s much easier to become the amateur sports capital. You can"t do the same thing with cultural tourism - it takes more than a stadium to do that. Right from the beginning we were set up to fail because we cannot accomplish the same success in the short run that they did." In fairness, Mayor Peterson has described his cultural initiative as being at least a 25-year enterprise. But Avgoustis suspects there is pressure from some quarters to see results right away. "You cannot do that," he says. "It has to take a few years to develop this impression of the city with its own residents. It"s much more difficult for arts organizations to do that." Avgoustis wishes he could share his expertise with the city"s cultural strategists. He has been following the initiative since Mayor Peterson announced it over two years ago - as a virtual spectator. "I haven"t heard anything from anybody. I was never approached by anybody even to ask for my opinion. I don"t take it personally. They have their own people - that"s fine. But I don"t know what it would take just for them to consider what I have to say." Keira Amstutz, Mayor Peterson"s assistant in charge of cultural development says she"s not sure how to respond to Avgoustis" feelings of being cut out of the loop. She calls Avgoustis "a great ambassador for tourism" and says "he"s been very helpful and very nice." She confirmed that she has met with Avgoustis and called the meetings "very informative," saying that he is doing "interesting work" that is "definitely on our radar screen." In the meantime, Avgoustis has turned to the media as a means of sharing his research with the community. Whenever he does this, he says he gets miffed calls. "Somehow everyone becomes a statistician," he says. "They want to find out the sample size. And then, "what"s your involvement with tourism? What do you know about tourism?" And then the third part is: "Are you upset because you didn"t get a specific contract to do something?"" Avgoustis shakes his head. "Right now we"re just concentrating on what we have. You can spend as much as you want, you"re not going to get people from out of town to visit a specific event just because you spend money on marketing."

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