The Indiana Black Expo Summer Celebration has been around for decades, but organizers continually look for new ways to make the event stand out.

It’s not always easy, organizers said. But it’s always rewarding.

“The reason why we’ve lasted so long is based upon strong collaboration that we have with partners, with the government, with the city of Indianapolis and with the state,” said Tanya Bell, president and CEO of Indiana Black Expo.

This year’s 11-day Summer Celebration, underway through July 16, has new sponsors, new programs aimed at higher education access and retention for black youth and — for the first time in the event’s 47 years — free admission to the many exhibits, conferences and workshops at the Indiana Convention Center.

“Sustaining an event like this is not easy,” said Chris Gahl, vice president of marketing for Visit Indy, the city’s tourism arm. “We have talked to other major cities who have had similar events which pop up only to go away within years.”

Ten new sponsors are onboard this year, including Ivy Tech Community College, Metro PCS, Salesforce and Macy’s.

Cummins Inc. is a sponsor for the 12th year. Jon Mills, the company’s director of external communications, said the event encourages youth to be interested in science and technology careers while also allowing the company an opportunity to reach diverse audiences.

“We think about how can we not only make our company stronger, but also encourage youth and diversity and make communities vibrant across the world,” he said.

A number of events will stress the importance of higher education.

A screening of the documentary “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” which is not scheduled to premiere until 2018, will give attendees a chance to watch the story behind black colleges and how they influenced the Civil Rights movement.

The education conference this year will add a component for parents and educators to address access and retention rates for minority students in college. For years, the conference had focused on K-12 education.

This is a way to make sure that black students are successful by completing a college degree and having a job when they finish, Bell said, and for educators to develop cultural competency when facing a diverse student body.

There are 700 registrants this year, an attendance record for the conference.

Ending entrance fees for all of the events at the exhibition hall this year is actually expected to boost attendance. Increased attendance leads to an increase in exhibitors and exhibitor revenue, Bell said. The decision to make the exhibit hall free has been five years in the making.

“This is sustainable over time, and we are confident that it will result in an increase in profits over the next three years,” she said. “When looking at it from a cost-benefit analysis, we’re hoping to see more return on investment for our vendors and sponsors inside the convention center.”

Last year, more than 196,000 people attended Summer Celebration. The event raised more than $700,000 to help fund Indiana Black Expo’s efforts toward scholarships and youth, health, economic and education programming.

Summer Celebration still faces its challenges.

Seven years ago, a shooting Downtown that injured nine people during the event raised questions of safety. But Bell said the organization created a plan for security measures and developed marketing strategies to overcome any social stigma.

Drawing top musical acts is more difficult than before.

Bell said Summer Celebration organizers have seen Indianapolis draw a host of concerts and tours that were uncommon years earlier.

“Right now, the market is saturated with entertainment,” Bell said. “If you have concerts at the back of the event, before and after the event that are not Indiana Black Expo affiliated, then that obviously impacts Summer Celebration.”

Bell said the organization plans to develop a closer relationship with a concert promoter to keep booking the same caliber of celebrities into the city by using Summer Celebration as a stop.

Black Expo is “blessed” to have artists like Fantasia and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds this year, Bell said, but next year could be different, depending on who is available.

Indiana Black Expo also continues to operate on a tight budget. About 20 years ago, Black Expo received hundreds of thousands of dollars from partnerships with tobacco companies, Bell said. The organization gave that money up to fuel tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

Despite the challenges, Summer Celebration still pays dividends for Indiana Black Expo and the city as a whole.

The economic impact for the city is estimated at $15 million to $20 million, said Gahl of Visit Indy.

Gahl said the event also is a magnet for future convention and tourism businesses. In 2015, for instance, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives asked for its convention to be held during the same days as Summer Celebration. The same thing happened with the National Black Catholic Congress in 2012.

“We have been proud for decades to host the largest and longest African-American cultural event in the nation,” Gahl said.

This story was published in The Indianapolis Star July 8, 2017. 

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