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Inviting visitors out into the cold New ad campaign seeks to lure tourists to Baltimore in winter; Targeting Pennsylvania; Effort is result of convention bureau's increased budget

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Downtown Baltimore bears a chilling resemblance to one of those February mornings that make people mutter unprintable things. Picture ice, everywhere, so much that you could put on ice skates and tear clear from Mount Vernon Place to Fells Point, from the National Aquarium to Rash Field.

It's enough to make people want to stop hibernating in front of the television, pack the flannels and head directly to the frozen city's downtown. The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association is betting on it.

Taking to the airwaves to promote Baltimore for the first time ever, the convention bureau's new television spot features actors portraying a couple and their daughter skating through the city and clearly relishing every moment.

Agile skaters they are: In 30 seconds, they fly past the likeness of a city police officer on North Charles Street, take a spin on the stools at the Hollywood Diner, give their regards to Nipper outside Baltimore City Life Museums. They speed past a tugboat at Fells Point, pause for a playful greeting from dolphins inside the National Aquarium, skate through the revolving doors of the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel and come out the other side dressed for a night on the town.

Then, instead of the synthetic stuff that looks like ice and the in-line skates that look like ice skates to the cameras, it's on to the real thing at Rash Field's rink, framed by a postcard-perfect closing shot of the downtown skyline.

"Don't hibernate this winter, celebrate. Fly south for the Baltimore On Ice Celebration because hibernation is for bears," says the announcer, before a toll-free number flashes on the screen offering free travel planners and discounts on hotels and other attractions.

The ad, the centerpiece of an estimated $300,000 print and broadcast campaign targeting Pennsylvania, begins airing Jan. 6. It will run through most of February during primetime shows and on evening and late news on CBS and Fox affiliates. The TV spot will be complemented by ads in Pennsylvania newspapers, regional magazines and 10-second radio spots highlighting a series of wintertime events.

All the ads take the city tourism industry's longtime nemesis -- the frigid season -- and attempt to thaw the chill at hotels, attractions and restaurants, when spending traditionally plummets with the temperatures.

"We're going head-on against the ice and we're selling ice to the Eskimos really," said Carroll R. Armstrong, the convention agency president. "We need to really sell to show Baltimore can be a winter destination too."

Armstrong and leaders of the Baltimore-based Campbell Group, which created the ad, said they hope the TV spot whets viewers appetites enough to lead them to print ads.

The print ads provide much more detail on Baltimore On Ice, a series of winter events. Winterfest, the biggest expected draw, runs Jan. 17 to Jan. 20, and beckons with the city's answer to a tropical carnival in the dead of winter.

Bathed in the glow of tiki torches, the "chill-a-bration" features a beach party by the palm trees, volleyball, steel bands, ice-carving competitions, skating, carnival games inside heated tents to warm chilled bones. Those who actually prefer playing in the snow can ski on snow shoes on Rash Field, blanketed (barring a natural assist) by snow-making machines from Ski Roundtop and Ski Liberty.

For Baltimore, the campaign represents a long-awaited stab at playing catch-up.

The convention agency remains years behind competitors in its foray into television marketing. (The state tourism office, too, just launched its first TV ads this year as the linchpin of a high-profile campaign resulting from a hefty increase in its advertising budget.)

Until now, the city's convention and visitors association has had a budget of only half to a third of its counterparts in other cities. And this year's campaign, as well as stepped-up marketing to lure conventions, would have been impossible but for an emergency, temporary state measure doubling the convention bureau's budget to about $6 million for the budget year that ends June 30.

But continuing that level of funding is by no means assured. State lawmakers have made plain that they would not allow the city to use state highway revenues to finance the convention and visitors agency again. And they insist Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke must commit at least $3 million to $4 million in hotel tax revenues to lure tourists and conventions.

Schmoke, who has repeatedly refused to commit any of the more than $10 million in hotel tax revenue, said he hoped a deal would be worked out to ensure stable funding for the agency. But he said he had yet to figure out how to make up for the loss of revenues in the general fund and wanted to avoid cutting other city spending.

Armstrong called the current budget a minimum to enable Baltimore to remain competitive in the bid for tourists and to boost dismal advance bookings at the Baltimore Convention Center, now nearing completion of its $151 million, publicly financed expansion and renovation.

"If we're going to be a big-league city, we have to do what all our competitors have been doing for years now," Armstrong said. He said he viewed the new TV campaign as a promising, fledgling effort but one that needs to be expanded dramatically, along with other marketing efforts.

Given the budget limitations, Robert Campbell, the Campbell Group's president, said the ad campaign targets mainly Pennsylvania because Baltimore draws more visitors from there than any other state. The new TV exposure, he said, should significantly boost the number of impulse travelers seeking a weekend away to break the winter blahs.

"The decision to come to Baltimore in winter really is a spur-of-the-moment decision," he said. "It's not like taking a 10-day trip to France or something. So we really have to be in their face so they think of Baltimore when they're figuring out what to do next weekend."

In recent years, numerous other cities have staged winter festivals and embarked on aggressive advertising campaigns.

The idea's the same in cold climates from Milwaukee to New York City: lure visitors during the days devoid of the warmth of the sun when wanderlust traditionally turns to toasty beaches, not frozen city streets.

"What we wanted to be able to do is create an impression that Baltimore is coming alive during the traditionally slow winter period -- no small task," said Brian Hall, Campbell's senior vice president. "Things really come to a grinding halt. But we know if the weather cooperates just enough to allow people to get out of their driveways up in Philadelphia, we can make things happen here."

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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