Selling Charm City Conventions: Baltimore is aggressively marketing itself to get bookings for the expanded convention center. It's a tough, costly effort against many other cities.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO -- On a flawless Tuesday afternoon made for playing hooky and taking the El directly to the ballpark, the rowhouse by Wrigley Field beckons with some of the hottest seats in town.

Perched just beyond right-center on a carpeted rooftop, the blue box seats glisten in the sunshine. Drinks flow freely at outdoor bars and inside the converted rowhouse where power-brokers within shouting distance of bleacher bums come to play and to schmooze. Cool breezes off Lake Michigan carry the tantalizing aroma of sausage, beef, shrimp and vegetables sizzling nonstop on rooftop grills.

All in all, it makes for a perfect setting to savor the old, ivy-covered ballpark and cheer on baseball's best-loved losers, to take in the downtown skyline of the city that invented the modern-day skyscraper -- and to talk Baltimore, especially to talk Baltimore.

For this is Baltimore's party, and Baltimore's emissaries, from the city's convention bureau and a handful of its larger hotels, have come to demonstrate their considerable hospitality. They do so for one simple reason: to woo those who consider potential convention sites in the fiercely competitive, $83 billion-a-year business.

Think of it as one date in a mating dance that can stretch for years from contact to contract to convention. It's by no means a cheap undertaking: The Lakeview Baseball Club -- complete with its own catering service, panoramic views into the ballpark and TV monitors visible from every vantage point -- costs $11,675 for the afternoon.

That translates to about $500 per each of the few dozen meeting planners gathered here. The club could hold more than 100, but a snowstorm over the weekend -- in mid-April -- and a still-winless Cubs team apparently kept many away. The tab for the trip, built around two days of selling Baltimore, totals more than $20,000, shared by the convention bureau and hotels.

It may seem extravagant. But then courtship in the industry tends to run a big tab, takes place aboard yachts, in exclusive clubs, in rented mansions, in art galleries and embassies and skyboxes, on championship golf courses and at trade shows where elaborate exhibits feature cityscapes with boardwalks, waterfalls and replicas of the Statue of Liberty.

Sounds like good work if you can get it, for meeting planners and sales teams alike. Kathleen Ratcliffe's mother certainly thinks so. Ratcliffe, the vice president of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, leads this two-day sales mission to her native Chicago, home to hundreds of associations and therefore destination for convention bureaus from Philadelphia to Phoenix.

She's been in the business more than 15 years and is serving a one-year stint as president of the influential Meeting Professionals International. "And if you ask my mother what I do," Ratcliffe says, "she'll tell you I put on parties for a living. I've given up on trying to tell her otherwise. Now, I just say, 'Yep, that's what I do, put on parties for people.' "

But in reality, for Ratcliffe and the Baltimore contingent, the Wrigley outing amounts to but a brief interlude sandwiched between a steady stream of back-to-back sales calls.

At each stop, the Baltimore representatives, divided into four teams, will be peppered with questions.

Meeting planners hurriedly scanning colorful, glossy diagrams of the newly expanded convention center, ask detailed questions about square footage and ceiling heights, loading docks and food service, even space inside for batting cages or bungee jumpers on "fun night."

They ask about the availability and cost of 3,000 downtown hotel rooms, preferably within a block or two of the center -- in precise terms, as in, the third week of June 2002. They ask about the airport and airfares and limousine service. They ask about complimentary luxury suites for officials and budget accommodations for medical students. And while we're on the subject, will hotels pick up the tab for the convention center rental?

Each team -- with two or three convention bureau and hotel representatives -- will make about a half-dozen stops. Sales targets range from a single representative of a 400-member group that only needs a hotel to companies that review potential sites for conventions that will demand every bit of the 1.2 million-square-foot Baltimore center.

The meeting planners play a pivotal role. Some book conventions directly; others sort through reams of proposals and recommend a select few cities to governing boards or association executives. All told, the Baltimore contingent calls on planners who are scouting for sites well into the next century for more than 75,000 conventioneers -- surgeons, lawyers, oncologists, engineers and hardware distributors, among many others.

Snaring all that potential business would bring more than $80 million in direct spending to the city. The more realistic aim: Persuading a small fraction to come to Baltimore for a "site inspection" of the center, hotels and attractions, which could lead to a convention coming, which would generate spending many times what the Chicago trip costs.

The approach seems decidedly old-fashioned in this age of e-mail and voice mail, cellular phones and faxes, pagers and video conferencing. But the convention industry, perhaps more than ever before, puts a premium on being there, face-to-face.

"Because so much is at stake, all these convention bureaus go to the lengths they do to impress," says Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive of the Baltimore bureau. "The meeting planners have seen it all before, heard it all before. And they have to be confident that we can control things enough to make them look good, to make everything come off just as it should.

"We're not just selling a building and hotels and this name Baltimore. We're selling an experience, and we have to show them it'll be a good one. You can't do that on the phone."

Nervous waiting

Sunday evening, and no sign of the wind-up plastic crabs that walk sideways. Or the Orioles caps to remind Cubs fans looking out onto Wrigley Field about Baltimore's retro nod to old-fashioned ballparks. Or the sales kits filled with glossy images of downtown Baltimore, detailed floor plans of the convention center, maps showing hotel rooms and attractions.

This causes considerable distress for Ratcliffe, who's paid to pay attention to such details and suddenly sees the possibility of a year's planning for these crucial two days going awry.

"They should have been here by now. What happened? We need them." But the angst is short-lived. In a matter of minutes, somebody will call Baltimore, get a tracking number, locate the express package of goodies for meeting planners, and get assurance that it will indeed arrive in time for the first appointments Monday morning.

Crisis averted, bringing palpable relief to the sales team members.

Where's the hotel?

On the eve of the calls, they sit around a dining room table in a hotel suite high above the turquoise waters of the Chicago River. The ensuing strategy session is brief and to the point. Ratcliffe leads a quick review of key selling points, particularly completion of the $151 million convention center project, tripling its size.

Then there's the much dicier matter of the city's choice of a hotel to serve conventioneers -- a mile from the convention center, about a mile too far to most meeting planners.

Invariably, whether the city has or plans a headquarters hotel connected to the center comes up in the first few minutes of sales calls. The representatives explain that Baltimore has awarded exclusive negotiating rights to a team led by baking mogul John Paterakis to build a 750-room hotel on the harbor. But they add that a second hotel, proposed by Orioles principal owner Peter G. Angelos, could bring 1,000 rooms directly connected to the center.

Between sales meetings, Ratcliffe says what she does not say to the meeting planners: "Our jobs would be a whole lot easier if we knew we were getting a convention headquarters hotel."

Indeed, most of the conventions with more than 3,000 expected seek at least a 1,000-room headquarters hotel, preferably connected to the center, as many of Baltimore's competitors already have or are planning.

Stressing strengths, the sales teams tout the newly expanded convention center, the airport's location minutes from downtown, comparatively cheap airfares since Southwest Airlines' arrival, competitive hotel rates, a cluster of attractions in an eminently walkable downtown, Oriole Park, the new football stadium rising next door, the "second renaissance" bringing a host of new attractions.

After the obligatory small talk and five-minute pitch, most of the meeting planners fire away questions. The Baltimore sales team leaves most sales calls not with anything resembling commitments, but with more questions to answer, in formal proposals, written responses to requests or follow-up calls and visits.

But whatever the immediate outcome, those paid to examine destinations in excruciating detail and, perhaps more important, negotiate contracts, say a bureau's being there often makes all the difference.

Althea H. Jenkins, executive director of the 11,000-member Association of College & Research Libraries based here, knows the rooftop across from Wrigley well. She's been here at least three times, courtesy of convention bureaus, and is mindful of the little things on each visit.

"People in the business have to pay very close attention to how VTC they treat you, how the bureau treats you on these visits because it's indicative of how they treat you when you get there," she says. "Say, you come here, and nobody greets you, you wonder what you're going to get in that city when you send thousands of people there. Will they just forget you there too?"

Stay in touch

Joyce Paschall, a meeting planner with the Sherwood Group Inc., which scouts convention sites for 22 associations, worries if she doesn't hear from cities her clients might consider.

"This is what keeps us informed about who is out there and who is ready," she says. "If a city loses that visibility with the planners, then we figure there's little being demonstrated that shows this city has interest and capacity for convention business."

On both sides of the conference room tables, everybody knows what it takes, and it is anything but a glamorous party life.

The yearlong planning for this sales blitz -- Baltimore normally does a few a year, but may increase that number -- entails sorting through a 2-foot stack of industry reports, to winnow about 300 conventions down to those that will be targeted.

Many organizations plan the exact dates for years to come, and often rotate geographically, so availability of the center eliminates some immediately.

Who's met where and when for the past several years and what plans do they have for the next five? How many have attended? Is the gathering growing or shrinking? Big spenders or low-ballers not worth the effort? How much space is needed, and can the event fit in the Baltimore center or a hotel? How many hotel rooms are needed, and are headquarter hotel requirements specified? Free suites, hotel rebates to cover convention center costs? How long will it take to move them in and move out of the center?

And that's all before requesting a half-hour sales meeting.

The oh-so-decorous selling belies the brutally competitive nature the industry and, in Baltimore's case, desperation to fill a woefully underbooked center. After years of scrimping on a third to half of what competitors spent to lure visitors, bookings for the Baltimore Convention Center drop off sharply by 1999 and 2000. Citywide conventions, those filling at least 900 hotel rooms on peak nights, number 41 this year. But as of December, the convention bureau says, 17 major conventions have been booked for 1999, 15 for 2000, 14 for 2001.

The drop-off in bookings raises serious questions about the expanded center's ability to live up to its promised payoff: $340 million a year direct-spending by conventioneers, generating $30 million in annual tax revenue and 8,000 jobs.

Marketing budgets elsewhere have grown as competition has intensified, with dozens of cities building new convention centers or undertaking major expansions. Centers have tripled to about 400 since 1980, leading some experts to predict a shakeout and costly failures.

Only now is Baltimore beginning to narrow the gap, with a state emergency measure doubling convention bureau spending to about $6 million last year and a new law maintaining the level, mostly through city hotel tax proceeds. That should enable the ++ bureau to mount much more aggressive advertising and direct-mail campaigns, attend more trade shows and substantially boost its travel budget.

Still, whatever's spent, on the next sales pitch and the next and all those that follow, almost all the courting will go unrequited, at first, at least. Ultimately, filling the convention center will depend not so much on schmoozing and partying but on diligence.

"It's a nonstop process, it never ends, really," Ratcliffe says. "Every city is out there doing this, and we've been trying to do it on a shoestring for a long time.

"Selling is selling. Whether you're selling encyclopedias or sewing machines or destinations, you have to make them aware of the product. And until now, we haven't been able to go all out doing the way we needed to and the way everybody else has."

Pub Date: 5/25/97

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