Five questions for Sail Baltimore's executive director Laura Stevenson

40 foreign attachés arrive in Baltimore on Wednesday

About 40 foreign attaches from around the world — Serbia to Spain, India to Italy — will gather this week in Baltimore with one purpose: to consider whether to bring their nation's tall ships to the Inner Harbor.

The nonprofit Sail Baltimore, which works year-round to attract tall ships and military vessels to the city, hopes to repeat its successes with the Star-Spangled Sailabration in 2012 and the Star-Spangled Spectacular in 2014.

"The more ships that come to Baltimore, the greater the economic, cultural and commercial impact we see in the city and that's great for everyone," said Laura Stevenson, Sail Baltimore's executive director.

The foreign guests will ride a water taxi and visit M&T Bank Stadium, visit the National Aquarium and have lunch at Phillips Seafood.

To get a better sense of this gathering and the history behind it, The Baltimore Sun caught up with Stevenson for a chat.

Can you talk a little about Sail Baltimore's history?

Sure. Sail Baltimore started in 1975 in preparation for the 1976 Bicentennial. Back then, Mayor [William Donald] Schaefer had put together some of the business leaders to form a committee, known as Baltimore Operation Sail, to bring in the ships for the Bicentennial. That's what started it all. Ever since then, we've hosted ships year-round — tall ships, military ships, educational ships, environmental, other service ships — year in and year out since 1975. Once in a while, we do a big tall-ship gathering like we had in 2014 and 2012, but other than that we host ships on a year-round basis.

What were the successes and economic impact you saw from the 2014 and 2012 events commemorating the War of 1812 bicentennial?

Sail Baltimore was the group that brought the tall ships and the military ships to the harbor. We worked in partnership with Star-Spangled 200 and the Baltimore Office of Promotion [& the Arts] to put on all the events, including the Blue Angels, the fireworks, but our part was really the ship portion. So we brought in ships from all over the world for both events.

When they did the economic impact, when some of that information came back, the interesting, and I guess good, part for us was that the favorite part of the event was the visiting ships, so we were happy to see that. And then, the economic impact was huge for the city and the state. Over both events I believe it was close to 3 million visitors and over $300 million in economic impact, so it was a huge event for the city and the state on both occasions.

What's happening this week?

Every few years we host what we call a "fam tour," or a familiarization tour. We bring in the attaches from all the different countries. We invite them up for a daylong tour, we take them to different attractions downtown. Every time we do it we try to do something different in case some of the attaches are the same, but often they turn over every few years, so it's a good chance to bring these decision-makers up to the harbor to see what Baltimore has to offer. And hopefully we entice them to bring their ships back.

They are really the decision-makers for their navies as to where they are going to send their countries' tall ships and military vessels for future years, so it's a great opportunity for us to show off the city.

What have you heard in past years about Baltimore? What's the impression that the foreign attaches have of Baltimore?

Often, it's being able to dock right downtown. In other cities they are put out at a Navy facility or somewhere else. Here they are right in the heart of it. Their sailors can walk around and experience the city, and go to the attractions, and go to the restaurants, and go to sporting events, and do everything right here, which is wonderful. Also, there is our proximity to Washington, D.C. A lot of the embassies will have events, when they are here, in Washington, and they'll invite their guests from Washington up here to Baltimore.

A lot of the ships can't fit into Washington, so that's a great advantage for being here in Baltimore. Some of the ships are training ships for their naval academies, so they'll bring their cadets down to do tours of the Naval Academy while they're here. So Baltimore is a really good location that is central. They can go to Washington, they can go to Annapolis, they can even take the train to New York while they are here. If it's a one stop trip to the U.S., then Baltimore can do everything for them.

If you had a whole day to spend in the Inner Harbor, or in and around it, what would you do? What's your perfect day?

If it includes my kids, they always want to go to Ripley's Believe It or Not, so that's a big one. But also I think I would always recommend the aquarium — it's so unique to downtown here — and of course the Constellation and the lightship [Chesapeake] and the Torsk [submarine]. The Science Center is always a good one, too, for me having children, and Fort McHenry is really important for everybody to see because it's such a big part of our country's history.

I think that's important for anyone who comes downtown, but I really enjoy the Inner Harbor and the waterfront and just walking along the promenade, going to Fells Point and back. It's just such a beautiful, picturesque place to be. I'd also definitely want to play beach volleyball and see some tall ships!

Name: Laura Stevenson

Title: Executive director, Sail Baltimore

Age: 47

Residence: Millersville

Birthplace: New Orleans

Education: Bachelor's degree, Loyola University; MBA, University of Maryland, College Park

Family: Husband; son, 10; and daughter, 8

Hobbies: Volleyball, coaching kids' basketball teams

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