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Firms try to track down new clients


Whoever suggested business is best conducted apart from pleasure obviously never had been at the Preakness Village.

A Preakness tradition since 1985, the exclusive tent city of starched tablecloths and crab cakes represents an unusual mixing of business and sport.

"We have about 150 clients here," said Stephen Bailey, senior vice president of group business for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland. "It's an opportunity to spend a day with them. Getting time with some of these people is difficult."

The health care insurer had a tent under the name of its CareFirst subsidiary. Inside, guests and employees munched on shrimp and salmon.

Bailey said the corporate tents, located on a fenced-off portion of the infield, provide an elegant setting for wooing new customers and reconnecting with old ones.

Eighteen companies and organizations rented space this year, inviting about 3,000 guests.

The outing was not inexpensive. A single, 100-person tent cost $25,000. Larger groups were accomodated by adding additional tents at a cost of $20,000 for the second tent and #18,500 for a third, according to one renter.

Catering added another $7,000 to $30,000 to the cost of the event. But businesses said it was a solid investment.

"It's important when you're a vendor of this state that you become part of the state and participate in state functions," said Vic Contino, director of Maryland site operations for G-Tech, a company with a major contract with the Maryland Lottery.

Joan Fernandez, marketing director for Delta graphics, said an indirect approach is best in the village.

"You meet people. But it's not like a networking event where you hand out (business) cards. It's more subtle than that," Fernandez said.

Delta, official graphic designer for the Preakness Celebration Inc., worked out of the Preakness Celebration tent.

The look of the village was decidedly upscale buy understated. The tents were a scrubbed white, with only a small sign designating the sponsoring company.

A 13-piece swing band entertained at one end of the tent area near the track's finish line. when not sampling the fare, guests could have their fortunes told or their pictures taken next to life-sixed plastic thoroughbred. The photos were then turned into a button to wear.

The state of Maryland was there with about 300 guests inside a tent labeled "Maryland, My Maryland."

"If you walk through the tent, you'll see people who are doing business successfully in Maryland and people who are considering doing business here," said Mark Wasserman, secretary of the state's Department of Economic and Employment Development.

Pimlico waived much of the cost of the state's tent, cutting the bill for taxpapers to about $30.000. "We're going to get our value and then some,"Wasserman said.

Among the invitees: ship lines with leases at the prort of Baltimore, senior officials of federal installations in the state, as well as executives of Westinghouse Corp. and other major employers.

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