A time to brag about city Important convention of meeting planners could mean business

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They'll sail the harbor. They'll sample the best Baltimore chefs have to offer. They'll stroll the promenade and take the new span between docks to party at the new Hard Rock Cafe. They'll see the city as "Hollywood in Baltimore" at a vast theme party inside a subterranean convention center exhibit hall.

Then, perhaps, many of the Meeting Professionals International (MPI) members arriving here tomorrow for a three-day convention will decide whether to send tens of thousands of others to Baltimore to spend three or four days -- and millions of dollars.

With 2,500 expected, it's by no means the biggest of the gatherings -- from square dancers to hardware merchants to lawyers -- to assemble at the expanded Baltimore Convention Center. But the group's annual convention could well be the most important to the center and the city's $1 billion-a-year tourism industry: MPI planners book about 586,000 meetings annually -- convention business worth $4.6 billion a year -- and they're constantly wooed by cities across the country.

"This is show time, and you do or die here -- and this is what makes you or breaks you," said Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "If we don't do it well, we will have a hard time undoing that. If we do it well, we get a whole lot of business. It feels like it's all or nothing, win or lose."

Attracting MPI, which is celebrating its 25th year, represents an important coup for Baltimorebecause of the exposure to influential meeting planners. Nashville played host last year, Chicago the year before. As a result, both cities reaped more than $100 million worth of bookings within a year. Baltimore hopes to match that and boost sagging business at the Convention Center.

Kathleen Ratcliffe, who resigned June 30 as BACVA's vice president to head the Jacksonville, Fla., convention bureau after 6 1/2 years of leading the far flung efforts to market Baltimore, had worked for years to lure the group to Baltimore. She knows how much hangs in the balance: With more than 14,200 members in 51 countries, MPI represents everything from planners for small corporate gatherings to associations that can send more than 15,000 free-spending delegates to town.

To show the meeting planners and other industry representatives a good time for three days, the Baltimore convention bureau has devoted more than a year to planning. The $1.2 million extravaganza, bankrolled by the bureau, hotels and tourist attractions, sandwiches as much Baltimore as possible in between the exhibits, workshops and meetings.

At an opening night reception at the National Aquarium, conventioneers will jam to a jazz band, brew their own beer, learn to speak "Bawlmerese," munch on cuisine from crab cakes specialties from Greek Town and Little Italy in a "taste of Baltimore" feast. They'll board historic ships. They'll ply the harbor in water taxis and sailboats.

In their hotel rooms, they'll get customized collectible wine bottles, Baltimore seat cushions, Baltimore badges and Baltimore board games. But competition will be represented, too.

At a Convention Center gala Tuesday night, the city's influential guests will see Baltimore as big-time, as in Hollywood, in an exhibit hall transformed with slices of Tinsel Town via Baltimore productions like "Diner," "Sleepless in Seattle," "Tin Men," "Avalon," "Hairspray," "Homicide." Kevin Bacon will play with a band. Sheena Easton will sing.

The wining and dining is based on a truism in the convention industry: A convention center itself almost never attracts the gatherings and the millions of dollars the delegates spend; the city that surrounds it does.

"They're going to make their decision not based on the convention center building itself, but on the town, on the attractions, how friendly we are as a city, from the cab drivers to the hotel people to the restaurant people," said Robert L. Steele III, general manager at the Hyatt Regency Inner Harbor.

The cabbies and concierges, the waitresses and bartenders, the shopkeepers and the ticket takers, have all been put on notice: Be nice -- because it means big bucks for Baltimore. Armstrong sent hundreds of letters out to the city's convention bureau members saying as much, to remind them how much a city's people mean to shaping its image.

"Just to tell them, 'Here's our chance and we can't do it without you,' " Armstrong said. "We're talking big bucks, and we've got to make Baltimore shine, so treat these guests the same as you would a guest in your own house."

For the meeting planners, this sort of convention is about much more than a good time and learning the latest trade secrets to booking the best site for the least amount of money.

"We're looking at everything -- how easy it is to get from the convention center to the hotel? How do people treat you? What's the food like? What's there to do around town?," said R. Russ Ruston, meeting planner for the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians, who is considering Baltimore and Washington for conventions in 2001 and 2003. "I would say mostly, it's the overall feeling about how it was to be at this meeting in Baltimore."

And, yes, night life matters. A recent trip to Tampa left him thoroughly unimpressed, Ruston said, not because of the convention center or the hotel package: "The convention center was nice, the meeting was OK, the hotels were OK. But we were in downtown Tampa, and there's absolutely nothing to do."

Pub Date: 8/02/97

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