INDIANAPOLIS — The convention and tourism business, crushed by the pandemic, is now on the rebound.
That's as conventions, trade shows and other events fill the Indiana Convention Center's calendar for the remainder of the year.
Gov. Eric Holcomb and Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett shared ribbon-cutting duties Wednesday morning at the start of the Sweets & Snacks Expo.
The ribbon-cutting is not just about welcoming trade show attendees but celebrating a big step toward the return to normalcy. The expo is the first trade show at the ICC in 18 months. It has drawn roughly 8,000 people from across the country.
While Chicago has hosted it for 20 years, Indy was able to snag it this year after investing $7 million in health and safety upgrades at the height of the pandemic.
Lauren Boland, a spokesperson for the expo said, "We're really excited. We think it's going to be a safe and successful show for our attendees."
The annual expo usually attracts twice as many people, but Boland said it was scaled back in the planning stages because of the pandemic.
"It will look a little different and feel a little different but the most important thing is getting back to business," she said.
While Marion County no longer requires face masks for those fully vaccinated, the National Confectioners Association has asked attendees to fill out health screenings and wear masks, as an added precaution.
The retailers, suppliers and manufacturers attending the expo seemed happy just to be back in person.
Veronica Pinero with Cyclone Cotton Candy said, "I'm very excited. I feel like it's real-life again because we're back here meeting people. Everyone's happy. There's a lot of energy."
When Jack Zachary, with Zachary Confections, saw someone he hadn't seen since before the pandemic, he reached out to shake his hand and give him a hug.
"This is what I'm talking about. We love seeing our friends in the candy business again," he said. "We do a lot of Zoom, a lot of calls but there's no eyeball-to-eyeball and that's what the candy business is about, people-to-people."
Those in the hospitality industry are also glad to see all the activity in and around the convention center.
Visit Indy's Chris Gahl said, "It's allowed other Hoosiers to get back to being employed. We know hotels, restaurants and museums benefit from events like this, our first trade show."
Gahl said most downtown hotels were booked solid, with restaurants like The District Tap and Harry and Izzy's enjoying a nice bump in business.
Doug Gearhart, who was attending the expo with his wife, said they were ready to spend some money.
"A couple hundred dollars a day on meals and we'll be checking out other places, yeah, it's all good," he said.
The expo is expected to generate $7 million in economic impact, but what's sweetest of all is the list of conventions, trade shows and other events on the calendar through year's end. They include Black Expo, GenCon, FFA and the Firefighters Instructors Conference. Gahl said there are very few "open" dates.
And, in case you're wondering if you can head to the Sweets and Snacks Expo and try some samples, the answer is unfortunately no. It's a trade show, so it's closed to the public.