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Baltimore convention business begins recovery but will likely lag leisure travel

Since reopening in April after a yearlong closure during the coronavirus pandemic, the Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor has welcomed back guests and even hosted about 20 meetings.

It’s a better-than-expected start on the path back to normalcy, said the general manager of the city-owned hotel that largely serves the Baltimore Convention Center.

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“Every week, we’re becoming more optimistic in our outlook on the future,” said Greg Brown, the hotel’s general manager.

Baltimore’s travel and tourism industry is looking to regain its footing after being decimated by the health crisis. In the city and elsewhere, lockdowns and restrictions on gatherings and travel wiped out the hospitality business, leading to mass layoffs and loss of tourism-related revenue.

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The Baltimore Convention Center hasn’t hosted events for more than a year, instead serving as a COVID-19 field hospital and mass vaccination and testing center, hurting downtown hotels that depend on group and business travelers. Laid off hospitality workers say most jobs have yet to return.

By most accounts, leisure tourism is expected to recover more quickly than the meeting and conference business, projected to rebound sometime next year at the earliest.

“The last 14-15 months months has been really devastating to our industry here in Baltimore city,” Al Hutchinson, CEO of Visit Baltimore, told city council members during budget hearings earlier this month. “Obviously, very little hotel tax revenue has been coming in. And small business, hoteliers, restaurateurs, museums, everyone has been really impacted by the pandemic of a lifetime.”

How Baltimore hotels weathered the pandemic

Baltimore hotels weathered the pandemic differently. Some like the Hilton, closed during much of the crisis but have reopened. Others remain closed, including The Holiday Inn Baltimore Inner Harbor, which had been in receivership and shut its doors in November, and Embassy Suites by Hilton at St. Paul Place, which says it plans to reopen in September.

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Last year’s cancellations and postponements cost the Hilton what otherwise would have been a strong year of group and meetings business. But the bulk of events were re-booked for future dates, and planners have become more comfortable as vaccines rolled out and restrictions were lifted, Brown said. The earliest of those events have been booked for the last three months of this year and into the first quarter of 2022. The Pratt Street hotel has returned to about 30% of pre-pandemic staffing.

“We see a strong return of business, the group business in 2022,” with some groups finding their first-choice rebooking dates already taken, Brown said.

In the wake of lockdowns and global travel restrictions in March 2020, occupancy at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore plummeted from 90% to nearly nothing in a matter of days. The Inner Harbor hotel shut down before resuming limited operations in July 2020. Local leisure travel on weekends helped sustain the business, said Ilemona Salifu, Hyatt’s area director of sales, marketing and events.

The Baltimore Convention Center hasn’t hosted events for more than a year. During the pandemic, it served as a COVID-19 field hospital and mass vaccination and testing center.
The Baltimore Convention Center hasn’t hosted events for more than a year. During the pandemic, it served as a COVID-19 field hospital and mass vaccination and testing center. (Ulysses Munoz/Baltimore Sun)

As restrictions loosen, hotel bookings are on the rebound

Now, amid loosening restrictions, Salifu said, “occupancy levels are slowly on the rebound, and the hotel is getting back to hosting more weddings, social events, and mid-size group meetings.”

“The pent-up demand for travel is immense,” he added, “and with the number of fully vaccinated people growing each day, Hyatt is seeing strong demand for its hotels into summer and fall.”

Even group and business travel is returning earlier than expected, Salifu said, especially in the pharmaceutical, information technology, and banking and finance industries. New group business booked in the first quarter of this year for future dates is up 55% compared with bookings in the last quarter of 2020 for future dates, he said.

Leisure travel appear to be on the mend. Over Memorial Day weekend, Baltimore hotels topped 60% average occupancy, resulting in the best weekly performance since COVID-19 hit, Hutchinson said.

“It does show that there’s a lot of pent-up demand, and leisure visitation is beginning to come back,” he said. But “it’s definitely going to be a slow grind.”

He is encouraged that seven out of 10 Americans plan to take vacations this summer, according to the U.S. Travel Association. To attract East Coast travelers, Visit Baltimore created a 30-second TV spot showing scenes of the city that’s airing on Hulu and other streaming platforms in Washington, Philadelphia, New York City, Richmond and Boston.

Baltimore will host its first major event since the start of the pandemic in July when 400 to 800 people come to town for the Destinations International Annual Convention. Attendees will use ballrooms in the Hilton and the convention center and are expected to generate about $800,000 in economic impact.

Greg Brown, general manager of Hilton Baltimore, inside the Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor. The hotel has welcomed back guests and even hosted about 20 meetings since reopening in April, after a year-long closure. Brown says "We think it will be a pretty quick recovery." In July visitors from two large conventions will stay at the hotel. June 17, 2021.
Greg Brown, general manager of Hilton Baltimore, inside the Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor. The hotel has welcomed back guests and even hosted about 20 meetings since reopening in April, after a year-long closure. Brown says "We think it will be a pretty quick recovery." In July visitors from two large conventions will stay at the hotel. June 17, 2021. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Larger citywide conventions, however, remain a ways off. The first is scheduled for mid-October, when the American Society for Reproductive Medicine is expected to fill area hotels and boost restaurants and attractions. Large conventions will once again be possible after the state closes the coronavirus vaccination and testing site at the convention center by Oct. 1.

The center’s use as a field hospital has added to the booking challenges. Even though the hospital is physically separated from the rest of the facility, the presence of patients in the building has deterred some customers.

The convention center has not been given a definitive date for the hospital’s closing that could then be communicated to groups looking to book, said Peggy Daidakis, the center’s executive director.

The convention center is working with smaller group clients to be able to finalize space in meeting rooms this year as soon as it has a definitive closure date for the hospital, Daidakis said. She said her staff has been making plans to prepare the building for re-opening almost since the day it shut down.

“We do have other customers we’re working with now to confirm that they’re still a go to use meeting rooms and ballrooms,” she said. “When the customers come back, we’ll be ready for them.”

The industry’s slow recovery has been especially difficult for its workers.

Vilma Licona, a banquet server and bartender at the Hilton since 2008 who was laid off in March 2020, was only recently called back, but only for about four days a month.

“All this time, it’s been so hard,” Licona said. “At this point, we have no business.”

Licona, 51, said she has been unable to send as much money as she normally would to help support her parents in her native Honduras. The Columbia resident also is worried about her unemployment benefits decreasing next month when Maryland is set to stop participating in pandemic-related unemployment programs.

When will business return to pre-pandemic levels?

Pre-pandemic levels of business won’t return until next year, according to 46% of respondents in a winter survey by Meeting Professionals International. Another 29% expect a recovery to stretch into 2023. Yet that’s more optimistic than a U.S. Travel Association outlook that says it could take three more years to return to 2019 business levels.

“Now that the vaccine has rolled out, people want to meet,” said Melinda L. Burdette, director of events for Meeting Professionals International. But “we all have to still get over our fear of gathering together because we’ve been shuttered for all of this time.”

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To capture business as it rolls out, hotels are stepping up health and safety protocols to ease people back into large meetings. They are working with meeting planners to tailor health protocols to specific groups’ needs and comfort levels. And they’re looking to new technology to add more options for virtual components to complement in-person meetings.

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Hilton calls its new meetings and events program EventReady, offering features such as sanitizing stations, room set ups and meal services customized for physical distancing, more space for attendee flow and contactless check in and check out.

Exterior of Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor. The hotel has welcomed back guests and even hosted about 20 meetings since reopening in April, after a year-long closure. In July visitors from two large conventions will stay at the hotel. June 17, 2021.
Exterior of Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor. The hotel has welcomed back guests and even hosted about 20 meetings since reopening in April, after a year-long closure. In July visitors from two large conventions will stay at the hotel. June 17, 2021. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Hyatt recently launched “Together by Hyatt” to train planners to design in-person or hybrid events and to offer artificial intelligence technology to enhance the remote experience.

And since February, Marriott International has hosted more than 3,000 meeting planners at Marriott hotels in cities around the country, allowing them to step into a “hybrid meeting,” during a 90-minute tour.

More than 500 planners attended tours at a Marriott hotel in Bethesda, where the company is based, for demonstrations such as how to set up on-site COVID testing and temperature screening areas, how to keep general and break-out sessions socially distanced, how to re-design food and beverage areas and how to best use technology for remote attendees.

Kathy Mouw, Marriott’s vice president of global sales for the U.S. and Canada, said Marriott launched the program because, “we were getting the sense that customers were reluctant to travel, or companies had policies preventing them from attending in-person meetings.

The hope was to allow people planning events for groups or corporations to see in person how hybrid and COVID-safe events can be put together and customized.

Mouw said the sessions are making a difference.

“We do believe these labs are influencing decisions... to return to in-person events sooner than we than expected,” Mouw said. “We’ve seen a significant decrease in cancelations of meetings already booked.”

For the foreseeable future, meeting planners will need to work with venues to “create a safe bubble,” Burdette said, coordinating vaccine, mask wearing and COVID testing policies and becoming familiar with mandates in states that are candidates for hosting events.

“We’re stepping our toes in the water at this point from a meeting standpoint,” she said. “We’ll have to figure out what is their comfort level and present a compelling reason for them to come.”

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