City Council members want Baltimore to invite groups looking to move their conferences out of North Carolina over that state's controversial "bathroom bill."
While recruiting convention business seeking an alternative to the Southern state offers an opportunity to boost tourism, officials say doing so requires a delicate approach. The discussion comes after a group of business historians announced they would move their 2018 gathering to Baltimore from Charlotte, N.C.
Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton said the circumstances provide an opportunity.
"It's a chance for Baltimore to prove how progressive and welcoming we are," said Middleton, who leads the council's economic development committee. "If some of these groups decide they want to pull out of North Carolina and come here, we should aggressively reassure them we are a city that can accommodate."
Baltimore is locked in constant competition with cities such as Charlotte, Nashville, Tenn., and Austin, Texas, to host conventions — and draw people and their spending power to local hotels, restaurants and attractions.
The Business History Conference pulled out of a planned April 2018 meeting in Charlotte — accepting a nearly $22,000 cancellation penalty — to join a growing boycott of North Carolina.
A new state law, derided as "the bathroom bill," targets lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The measure blocks sexual orientation and gender identity from anti-discrimination protections. It also requires people to use bathrooms in public buildings that correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificates.
Supporters say the law is necessary to protect women and girls from sexual predators.
Opponents see it as discriminatory and say it has hurt North Carolina's image and its economy, pointing to cancellations of concerts, conventions and company expansions. The state's incoming governor, Roy Cooper, and fellow North Carolina Democrats recently failed to repeal the law, which by some estimates already has cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
The NCAA, for example, decided in September to move seven championship events away from the state, and the NBA moved its 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte to New Orleans. PayPal decided in the spring not to open an operations center there that would have employed 400 people.
Mayor Catherine Pugh will uphold a ban on government travel to North Carolina imposed in May by the former administration. The ban also applies to Mississippi, which has a similar transgender law.
Pugh said the city must do "everything we can" to attract conventions and tourism to Baltimore, but she fell short of saying officials should use the transgender law to lure groups away from meetings planned in North Carolina.
"I don't want us to frame those opportunities by how we can capitalize on another city and state's challenges," Pugh said. "We want to focus on the opportunities here — you can walk around the Inner Harbor and visit neighborhoods and communities."
Luring events and companies that decide to leave North Carolina is a delicate balancing act. Business officials warned against appearing to raid another state.
"It is important not to actively take advantage of other states' controversy to lure business here," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership. "Baltimore should be able to stand on its own positive appeal."
Al Hutchinson, the new president of Visit Baltimore, said when he and his team approach groups about booking large meetings they talk about the thousands of hotel rooms within walkable distance of the convention center, Inner Harbor attractions and an "authentic experience" guests can get in city neighborhoods.
"Folks can come here and have a big-city experience, but they don't have to spend big-city money," said Hutchinson, who was recently recruited to lead Baltimore's tourism and convention recruitment.
Visit Baltimore hosted about 415 events in the fiscal year that ended June 30, generating a combined $180 million in estimated economic impact. The city hosts between 20 and 30 large conventions a year, but officials say the aging convention center is now too small to be competitive and are studying whether to build a bigger one.
About 10 large conventions have left Baltimore due to the convention center's size after hosting meetings in the city during the last 10 years, according to Visit Baltimore. That includes Otakon, the Japanese and East Asian anime and culture convention, which will move to Washington this summer. Future bookings are at risk, such as the American Academy of Family Physicians.
"These convention attendees come into your city, and it's a very low-cost way of showing what your city has to offer," Hutchinson said.
He said "we really can't say" if any other groups are looking to move from North Carolina to Baltimore.
"We're very cognizant of what our colleagues are going through and dealing with," he said. "As a marketing organization, we want to tell the story of Baltimore. Our commitment is to aggressively tell the world about what Baltimore has to offer."
Don Welsh, president of the industry group Destination Marketing Association International, said Baltimore officials are wise to focus on the city's assets, not the problems facing a competitor.
"The really good cities are the ones that focus on what they have to sell," Welsh said. "This is an industry that doesn't respond really well when you negatively sell. That may play well in the short term, but it's not a long-term strategy."
Visit Baltimore was not involved in booking the Business History Conference, which is contained to a single hotel, the Embassy Suites by Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor. The conference is expected to bring 350 guests and $120,000 in spending.
Members of the group said they were concerned about how any transgender members might have been treated in North Carolina. They said the group could return to Charlotte in 2020 if the bill is repealed, using the cancellation penalty as a down payment.
Officials with the North Carolina Department of Commerce said they did not have information on the economic impact of the transgender law, nor a tabulation of the number of conferences that have left the state because of it.
Laura Hill White, spokeswoman for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, said her office is aware of city governments banning travel to North Carolina over the controversial bill. The office also has fielded concerns and questions from various groups and businesses, some of which canceled planned meetings there.
The visitors authority launched a campaign, "Always Welcome," in mid-April to showcase Charlotte's "diversity and inclusiveness."
"We just want to educate the meeting planners and groups that we are a very welcoming city," she said. "We want to remain competitive."
Baltimore Councilman Ed Reisinger said he wants tourism officials to "open up the doors and our arms" to any groups looking to leave North Carolina.
"They should be proactive," he said. "That is why the city built all of these hotels and casinos, our two stadiums and the Inner Harbor. You have all of this. We shouldn't be sitting behind the desk waiting for the phone to ring."