Restoring image of Hoosier hospitality may be long road

A window sticker promising service to all was displayed in opposition to Indiana’s new religious objections law in downtown Indianapolis in March.

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana tourism agencies are rolling out campaigns emphasizing that everyone is welcome, but it might not be enough to quickly restore the state’s battered image after a backlash over its religious objections law.

An uproar sparked by fears that the law would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians led a few convention organizers and performers to cancel events and some state and local governments to ban travel to the state last week. Revisions to the law’s language have eased some of the criticism, but experts say the state could be dealing with a damaged reputation for years to come.

In a sign that Indiana is still under close scrutiny, hundreds of gay rights supporters marched to the site of the NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis on Saturday as college basketball fans were arriving for the games. The marches called for the state to go further and enshrine in its civil rights law protection for gays and lesbians.

Chris Gahl, vice president of Visit Indy, the lead promoter for Indianapolis, said he has been in “full crisis mode” since the furor erupted after Gov. Mike Pence signed the law late last month. Gahl said Visit Indy received more than 800 emails from people saying they were canceling trips for events such as the Indianapolis 500 or choosing a different vacation destination. The agency has been scrambling to prevent groups and businesses from either pulling out of negotiations for future conventions or canceling upcoming events altogether.

Two groups, including the public employee union AFSCME, have canceled conventions, and Gahl said two others were on the fence. He put the economic impact of those events at a “healthy eight figures.”

“What keeps us up at night is the fact that 75,000 people depend on tourism for a paycheck,” Gahl said. “And if we don’t fill the city with conventions and visitors, they don’t work.”

Fort Wayne, the state’s second-largest city, has had six national conventions express concerns about continuing business in Indiana. If all six pulled out, it would represent about $1.2 million in revenue, said Dan O’Connell, president and CEO of Visit Fort Wayne.

Businesses say they’ve been inundated with emails from people asking for reassurance that they are welcome in Indiana, or canceling orders or plans.

Traci Bratton, owner of the Hoosier Candle Company in Dayton, said she’s received emails from out-of-state customers who like her products but say they won’t be bringing their business to Indiana because of the law. “Hoosier hospitality has been thrown out the window,” Bratton said.