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Hotel bookings down since April unrest

Baltimore's tourism industry took a hit after the rioting and unrest in April, with hotels reporting a significant drop in business since then, officials said Wednesday.

Overall, hotel room bookings were down nearly 9 percent for the fiscal year ending June 30 despite the major economic boon of the Star-Spangled Spectacular last September.

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The figures were released Wednesday by the tourism organization Visit Baltimore at its annual meeting. Tom Noonan, the group's president, and two hoteliers said they did not expect bookings to return to pre-unrest levels for months.

"Our hotels are down 5 to 10 percent depending on the hotel in the area, and if you look at our museums and our attractions and our restaurants, I think they're taking it even a little harder than our hotels are," Noonan said.

"I think we're going to see a little depression into the summer and fall," he said. "Hopefully, by next spring we'll be back to normal."

Rioting broke out in April after days of peaceful protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody. About 400 businesses were damaged and attendance plunged at city attractions such as the Maryland Zoo and the Maryland Science Center. Some businesses have claimed the disturbances and subsequent days of curfew had a severe effect, including Langermann's restaurant in Canton, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May.

Greg Brown, general manager of the Hilton Baltimore, said the hotel lost four conventions that were to have been held around the time of the unrest, and it has seen a rash of hotel booking cancellations since then. This has had "a material impact on our operating results," he said, declining to release specific figures. The city-owned hotel reports its financial results annually in the spring.

"We did and are still experiencing a decline in leisure business that's very concerning to us," Brown said. "It is showing signs of improving, but we're not back to the booking pace and progress that the hotel experienced before the unrest."

City tourism officials were more upbeat, saying the city expects to finish the calendar year with a record 30 large conventions. Noonan said some canceled events, including the American Heart Association's three-day, 300-attendee conference, were too small to factor into the city's official convention count.

Despite "dark days," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told the Visit Baltimore meeting, "the city has made great progress in growing tourism."

Visit Baltimore reported the city had a record 24.5 million domestic visitors in 2014 who spent a record $5.2 billion. The success was bolstered by the Star-Spangled Spectacular, a War of 1812 bicentennial commemoration in September that drew 1.4 million local and out-of-state visitors. Noonan called it "the biggest tourism event the city's ever had."

Still, visitors booked just 424,000 hotel room nights in the fiscal year that ended in June — down from 461,000 the year before and 478,000 in 2013.

Noonan said the organization hoped to rejuvenate tourism with the continuation of the "My BMore" campaign featuring celebrities like the artist Common and former Oriole Cal Ripken Jr. Visit Baltimore also has a campaign planned to highlight the city's cuisine.

Light City Baltimore, a festival featuring light installations, concerts and a tech-oriented conference, is set to take place next spring, and Noonan said he hoped it would be a catalyst to get the city's hotel and tourism numbers back on track. He said he hoped the event will grow to the size of the Star-Spangled Spectacular in about five years.

At two other hotels in downtown Baltimore, the Home2 Suites by Hilton and the Holiday Inn Express, bookings were down about 25 percent in May and in June, said Christopher Snyder of Baywood Hotels, which owns the inns.

"We saw a lot of slowdown in pace not only for the immediate bookings but also the rest of 2015," Snyder said. "People are very much last-minute in their bookings with us. We saw a lot more of our corporate listings pull back from events due to the uncertainty that was going on in the city at the time. We're continuing to see that in this quarter."

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Snyder said hotels are offering discounts and other incentives to stem the losses, and said fall bookings are starting to pick up.

"We're seeing September looking a lot better, October's outlook right now is ahead of pace," he said. "Going into 2016, we're seeing booking patterns going back to normal."

Brown said Hilton managers also cut some deals with groups to keep bookings going.

"Every group opportunity is a negotiation, and we're having to do our negotiation in light of customer perception of the city," he said. "And we do what we have to do."

Brown said the city's hoteliers are hoping a recovery would come soon.

"What occurred was concerning, but we try to market our city for the great city it is and look forward to better days," Brown said.

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