Race cars speeding down Pratt Street brought Kevin and Debbie Parkhurst the 50 miles from their home in North East to downtown Baltimore for a third consecutive Labor Day weekend this month.
"It's the best thing the city's done," Kevin Parkhurst said of the Grand Prix of Baltimore. "It's three full days you have all this activity going on."
But city tourism leaders will have to find another way to draw the Parkhursts and other visitors from around the state, region and world to the city after organizers canceled the race indefinitely due to schedule conflicts. They say they are focused on booking more sporting events — like European soccer matches, hockey exhibition games and college lacrosse championships — and filling up the dead time of winter.
Landing a replacement event could be helped by the city's experience hosting the Grand Prix, tourism experts and city officials said. And local residents and experts alike said the exposure the Grand Prix provided could pay dividends in the future.
"I don't think anyone could ever put a dollar figure on the positive PR we received from the Grand Prix with people who have never been to Baltimore," said Gail Smith-Howard, general manager of the Hyatt Regency hotel downtown. "Hopefully, we will replace it with something on that national and global level."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called the Grand Prix a "benchmark" event for the city when she and race organizers announced Sept. 13 the event would not return in 2014 or 2015 because of conflicts with an Ohio State-Navy football game at M&T Bank Stadium next year and an American Legion conference at the Baltimore Convention Center the following year.
In its three-year run from 2011 through 2013, the race drew 160,000, 131,000 and 152,000 attendees, respectively, and brought a combined $130 million impact to Baltimore, city officials estimated. In comparison, the Star-Spangled Sailabration drew 1.5 million people to see tall ships and Blue Angels jets over a span of a week in June 2012, delivering an estimated $166 million economic impact to the region.
Rawlings-Blake lamented the loss of the Grand Prix and pledged to pursue more events like it, rejecting the idea that the loss of the event reflected poorly on the city.
The race showed "Baltimore is a place where big events can do business," Rawlings-Blake said. "I don't believe in giving in to pessimism about our city when I see so very clearly all of Baltimore's potential right in front of me. But in order to maximize the potential, we have to try. … I will continue to fight for opportunities to showcase Baltimore to the world."
Next year already looks to be a big year for events in the city, as it plays host to the Colonial Athletic Association college basketball tournament, the NCAA men's lacrosse final four, the return of tall ships to close out the Star-Spangled Spectacular, and the Army-Navy football game, said Tom Noonan, CEO of tourism agency Visit Baltimore.
And other big event options are on the horizon. The city could again become a stop in a future edition of the Volvo Ocean Race, an around-the-world sailing competition, even though the event passed over Baltimore for a stop in 2015 because of a conflict with the Preakness, Noonan said. And Baltimore-area venues are key in a bid that a Washington group is assembling for the 2024 Summer Olympics.
When it comes to adding new events, Noonan and Rawlings-Blake said, experience helps sell the city.
"Baltimore had a stop on the Grand Prix; not every city and state gets to say that in the U.S.," said Daraius Irani, executive director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University. "It's one of those things where you begin to get noticed and people come to the city, maybe not in the droves we thought, but still you've got people coming in who would not have otherwise come in, and spending money."
Visit Baltimore, also charged with booking conventions and other events, collaborates with the Maryland Office of Sports Marketing to attract sporting events. The state's sports marketing office helped lure such events across the state as the Dew Tour and the International Crown women's professional golf tournament.
But Baltimore and Maryland aren't alone in eyeing sporting events, and a city's experience isn't the only distinguishing factor for event organizers. Baltimore pits itself against cities such as Indianapolis, which promotes itself as the amateur sports capital of the world. Other cities have independent sports marketing arms devoted to bidding on the events, Noonan said.
"Baltimore is competing in a market environment in which lots of other people are competing as well, and often trying to do exactly the same thing," said Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, who researches the U.S. convention and tourism business. "There are literally dozens of cities that want to get exactly the same event."
What bookings often come down to is largely the number of hotel rooms, the amenities and the location a city can offer, but also whether a city is willing and able to seal the deal by subsidizing organizers' costs, Sanders said. In the convention business, this translates to free exhibition space; other events demand infrastructure investment, such as the $7 million in road work the city undertook before the first Grand Prix.
"The dilemma you have there is, are you capable of competing — and what, in the face of that competition, are you likely to be able to gain?" Sanders said.
Another option could be launching an event from scratch to replace the Grand Prix, something Noonan called "a big undertaking." Aside from the challenge of planning logistics, it requires an idea that draws a crowd in the first place.
"South by Southwest, you can't copy that; that's unique to Austin," Noonan said of the film, technology and music festival that occurs in the Texas capital each spring. "It needs to be authentic and unique to Baltimore to really make it drive itself and work."
Noonan said that while he likes the idea of a single signature event over Labor Day weekend each year, the city has to ensure it has a packed summer schedule and also fills the time when tourists might have less of a reason to visit Baltimore.
Promotions like Baltimore Restaurant Week and Baltimore Hotel Week, added last February, have been part of that strategy. Visit Baltimore plans to double down on the tactic with a yet-to-be-named promotion over two weeks in February 2014 that will combine restaurant and hotel deals with discounts at local attractions and retailers, Noonan said.
The Grand Prix's financial ups and downs also should be a lesson in planning events, Noonan said. (The event was never profitable, and its original organizer lost its contract with the city after the inaugural running for failure to repay debts.) Establishing a new Labor Day weekend festival requires figuring out who is going to manage it and how it will be paid for, he said.
"You have to make sure it will pay off," Noonan said. "You need anchor investors to make sure it works."
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.
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