When Baltimore loses its biggest annual convention in 2020, it will mark the fourth time in as many years that a large group left the city to find more spacious quarters elsewhere.
Natural Products Expo East, which has met on and off in Baltimore for decades and draws about 30,000 attendees, dealt the latest blow to the city’s tourism sector with plans to move to Philadelphia.
Other groups whose events have outgrown the Baltimore Convention Center include include Otakon, a Japanese anime and lifestyle convention that relocated to Washington last year and the National Athletic Trainers' Association, which drew about 12,000 people and left after 2016. The American Society of Human Genetics, which drew about 8,000, moved on after 2015.
The pile up of losses has made it clearer than ever, city officials say, that Baltimore must catch up to rival cities angling for the same business and remake its convention center. The convention center on West Pratt Street, originally built in 1979, expanded into a West Building between Sharp and Howard streets in 1997. With about 1.2 million square feet, it’s smaller than many newer competitors.
“Most of these conferences and conventions are growing, and we have not grown our convention center,” Mayor Catherine Pugh said. “We’re getting a lot of meetings that fit our footprint, but we’re also getting requests for more conventions of a larger size to come to Baltimore… We’re first choice among many conferences and conventions. We just need more space.”
The Maryland Stadium Authority is reviewing proposals for additional exhibit space and possibly a second convention hotel. In the first phase of a feasibility study requested by Pugh and released in July, the agency found that expansion is needed to attract new business. The stadium authority will study costs of several scenarios in a second phase this fall.
Al Hutchinson, CEO of Visit Baltimore, called Natural Products Expo, the city’s largest convention, “an incredible loss for Baltimore city on a number of fronts” that will be hard to recover. The meeting generated $17.3 million in economic impact, he said.
“We have a group that loves Baltimore,” but ended up using every bit of available space, including space outside the center under tents, Hutchinson said.
The group needed more space because of growth in the health and wellness market, said Adam Andersen, senior vice president of events for New Hope Network, which runs the Natural Products convention. But the group would re-consider Baltimore in the future if it adds space, Andersen said.
The group’s decision, following similar decisions from other groups, adds further evidence to the argument for expansion, Hutchinson said, as cities that Baltimore competes with, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh and Nashville, all have expanded or built new convention centers over the past five to eight years.
“Our building is older and smaller, and these new buildings had the bells and whistles and the technology these conventions demand,” he said. “It puts us at a competitive disadvantage, when meeting planners look at us compared to other cities.”
To remain viable long term, the center will require a massive investment, even if it is merely renovated, said Bill Cole, executive director of the Baltimore Development Corp.
“The question is do you do that or find a way to do that as part of a renovation process or expansion,” Cole said. “The idea is to build a convention center that will allow us to retain existing, attract new and bring back conventions that have left because of space, and if done properly will host multiple conventions simultaneously.”
Despite space constraints, the tourism and convention bureau has increased its citywide events, those that use the convention center and include at least 1,200 room bookings per night, for next year. The bureau said it booked 24 citywide conventions for this calendar year, with an estimated economic impact of $117.6 million. That will grow to 29 citywide events next year, with an estimated economic impact of $157.3 million.
But the number drops the following year with the end of BronyCon and Natural Products’ departure. BronyCon, the annual celebration of everything My Little Pony, has been drawing dwindling crowds and will hold its last convention in 2019.
So far, 17 events are booked for 2020, with an estimated economic impact of $97.6 million.
The stadium authority report recommends increasing the center’s square footage by 500,000 to 1.7 million, including an increase in exhibit space from 300,000 to at least 400,000 square feet. All of the various layouts and configurations considered by the stadium authority call for the demolition of the center’s older East Building.
The authority’s study ruled out a layout that also would have incorporated a new arena to replace the aging Royal Farms Arena, but advanced proposals to either expand the convention center alone or with a 500-room hotel on the site of the current 337-room Sheraton, which is privately-owned land.
“To get the contiguous floor space needed to attract and retain the types of conventions that are a fit for Baltimore, you really do need to have every possible piece of property over there,” except for the Old Otterbein United Methodist Church, which includes a 1785 chapel protected by a perpetual historic preservation easement.
The study showed “it was abundantly clear that an arena simply didn’t fit,” Cole said. “It would have distracted from the key mission and goal to create highly competitive convention space that fills hotel rooms.”
Pugh said she supports a scenario that includes a hotel and would like to see the expansion happen in the next few years.
The proposed hotel would become the second connected to the convention center. The current convention center hotel, the 757-room, city-owned Hilton, opened in 2008.
Amy Rohrer, president and CEO of the Maryland Hotel Lodging Association, said the city lacks hotel “demand generators,” such as big companies moving in that would buy hotel room nights, at a time when the supply of hotel rooms is increasing, including short-term rentals such as AirBNB and HomeAway.
Convention attendees are the biggest users of hotel rooms in the city, Rohrer said, and that means hotels will feel the impact of Natural Products’ move.
“If Baltimore continues to lose conventions of this size, it will be detrimental to the city as a whole, and to the state, due to the amount of employees and revenues generated by tourism,” Rohrer said in an email.
In Maryland, she said, hotels generate $1 billion in taxes, $6 billion in sales and employ more than 52,000 people.
Visit Baltimore said several new convention groups are on the books for next year, including Society for Research in Child Development, American Society for Healthcare Risk Management, Association for Molecular Pathology, the American Osteopathic Association and The College Board.
Hutchinson said the tourism agency is aiming to attract groups that have met in facilities comparable to Baltimore’s. He said they are seeking a group or combination of groups to replace Natural Products.
“Our challenge will be, there are very few groups of that size looking for opportunities around the country,” he said. “The majority are booked three, five or 10 years down the road. It does present a real challenge.”