City tourism officials are using this month's scheduled opening of a museum spotlighting black history and culture to push Baltimore as a destination of choice for African-American tourists.
With an eye on the planned opening June 25 of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, tourism officials increased their spending on advertising in predominantly black media by more than 66 percent over last year, to $224,900 from $134,800, said Nancy Hinds, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. Most of the money, $176,400, will be spent on radio advertising.
In addition, BACVA set aside $30,000 for a "familiarization tour" centering on the museum's opening weekend. The group expects to bring in 20 to 30 meeting planners, group-tour operators and travel media representatives from throughout the country. "The opening provides an opportunity to really take advantage and really position Baltimore well in this market," Hinds said.
Radio time has been purchased on three stations in Washington and two in Philadelphia. Print ads have appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune and Washington editions of The Afro American. Three Web sites - BET.com, SoulOfAmerica.com and AOL.com - also will feature ads geared toward the museum.
The newspaper ads, featuring pictures of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, promote the museum opening and the annual African-American Heritage Festival, set for that same weekend at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Exhorting the city's black heritage, the ads promise "your trip can also be a journey of inspiration and pride."
Minority travel represents a $9 billion-a-year market nationwide, Hinds said. Plans are to promote the Lewis Museum, which will be the second largest African-American history museum in the country (after Detroit's Museum of African American History), alongside such established city attractions as the Great Blacks in Wax Museum and the many sites connected to Douglass.
"We know the opening of this museum will have an impact on Baltimore," Hinds said.
Studies project African-Americans as a growing segment of the U.S. tourism industry. While the average number of trips taken by U.S. households remained stable from 2000 to 2002, the number of trips by African-American households grew 1 percent, according to statistics from the Washington-based Travel Industry Association of America. Overall, African-American travel volume, combining leisure and business trips, increased 4 percent over the same period, compared with 2 percent for the general population.
The numbers show an even greater impact on Maryland specifically. In 2003, 10 percent of all trips into Maryland were made by African-Americans, double the national rate of 5 percent, according to numbers provided by the state Office of Economic and Business Development. In all, 1.9 million trips into Maryland were made by individual African-Americans, 1.2 million by black households.
Private entrepreneurs are just as hopeful, especially because the museum sits on the eastern edge of Baltimore's No. 1 tourist attraction, the Inner Harbor. "This [puts] us on the national map," said Louis Fields, whose African-American Tourism Council of Maryland Inc. has been offering bus and walking tours of Baltimore's African-American heritage sites since 2000.
Thomas Saunders, who has run Renaissance Productions and Tours since 1990, said he has been gearing up for the Lewis Museum's opening for months.
Renaissance will be offering condensed versions of its heritage tours June 25-26, Saunders said. Shuttle buses parked near the museum will offer $25 tours at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. that include stops at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum and the Orchard Street Church, a site on the Underground Railroad.
The $33 million Lewis Museum is named for the late Reginald F. Lewis, the Baltimore-born businessman and philanthropist whose foundation donated $5 million to the project. The state, which contributed $30 million toward construction, will fund 75 percent of operating costs during its first year.
The museum has been designed largely as an educational experience. Much of the excitement surrounding the facility, a five-story building at Pratt and President streets, has centered on its key role in an African-American studies curriculum prepared by the State Department of Education for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. But city and state tourism officials clearly are hoping the museum will attract more than schoolchildren.
"Given Baltimore's location and history, with the African-American traditions here, this is going to be a huge tourism magnet," predicted Aris Melissaratos, state secretary of business and economic development.
Museum officials say they are comfortable with such lofty ambitions. "We expect it to be an economic engine for the state of Maryland," said the museum board's chairman, George L. Russell Jr., who has spent 10 years guiding the museum from conception to birth.
They're also confident that the 82,000-square-foot tourist attraction not only will live up to the advance billing, but also will have a positive ripple effect on other tourist sites.
Although the money committed by BACVA suggests that its officials are serious about trying to attract African-American tourists, Baltimore has a long way to go to catch up with other cities. Atlanta, for instance, spends an average of about $300,000 each year on similar efforts, estimates Kathleen Bertrand, vice president for community affairs of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. And Boston has a well-established walking tour of African-American heritage sites that attracts 200,000 visitors annually, said Larry Meehan, director of public relations and tourism for the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Though the Travel Industry Association does not rate Baltimore as one of the top-10 destinations for African-Americans on vacation, and BACVA doesn't break down its tourism figures by race, the city sees a steady stream of black tourists. And the head of at least one Internet site devoted to African-American tourists believes the city deserves a higher ranking.
Thomas Dorsey, founder of SoulOfAmerica.com, believes Baltimore is on a par with Washington, which the Travel Industry Association ranked third. "The same number that have clicked on D.C. have clicked on Baltimore on our site," said Dorsey, a Northwestern High graduate.
"It's the history of it," Dorsey said of the city's appeal to African-American tourists. "If you really want to boil it down to what are the most historic cities for African-Americans, you literally have three cities that stand above all the others: Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York."
The opening of the Lewis Museum, Dorsey said, could be an important first step in turning his hometown into the destination of choice for his clientele. Baltimore does more than most cities in trying to attract African-American tourists, he said, but should do a lot more.
"It really does have to start thinking about [its African-American heritage] the way Nashville started thinking about country music," Dorsey said from the Los Angeles headquarters of SoulOfAmerica.com. The tourist industry "generates money for Nashville even when there is a recession."