Destinations on display Convention: 'Marketplace 97,' a trade show at the Meeting Professionals International convention, gives cities a chance to show off.; Commerce

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Dallas promised to deliver for golfers, and brought a putting green, clubs, balls -- and vodka miniatures that said "DALLAS" in red letters. Niagara Falls came with a slot machine to help lure the gamblers. San Diego tantalized with 10-foot lighted photos and great odds on the beach being that sunny every day, while Nice and Portugal and Paris touted coastlines and sidewalk cafes.

The world's destinations -- or at least just about anywhere anybody would want to visit -- descended on the Baltimore Convention Center yesterday.

They set up enough booths to stretch a few football fields, representing hotels, resorts, airlines and other travel industry suppliers in 24 countries. They distributed a small forest's worth of glossy brochures.

But the Meeting Professionals International trade show, "Marketplace 97," amounted to much more than merely a beauty pageant of destinations trying to outdo one another, given the targeted audience: 1,200 meeting planners who book billions of dollars' worth of meetings business throughout the world.

The four-hour trade show -- a focal point of MPI's three-day World Education Conference that drew more than 2,400 to the city -- provides a glimpse of what goes into marketing destinations and just how competitive the business has grown.

Baltimore, which as host naturally occupied the prime spot by the exhibit hall entrance, got mostly positive reviews among the influential meeting planners. They liked the compact package of attractions and accommodations nestled within blocks ofthe Inner Harbor.

"The whole juxtaposition of the Inner Harbor with everything surrounding it is just perfect with everything in such close proximity," said Hank Roeder, a meeting planner for the National Business Travelers Association.

He's shopping for sites after 2001 for more than 4,000 members of the association, which represents those who book hotels, airlines, limousines and such for corporations.

But the group needs 3,000 hotel rooms, and their availability and distance from the center would play no small role in the group's choice. "It's critically important to where we book," Roeder said, standing beneath photos showcasing a downtown that now has about 4,600 rooms, but, during peak season, often only about 1,000 scattered in different hotels available for conventions.

Hotel issue

Inevitably, as the city moves ahead with plans for the 750-room Wyndham Inner Harbor East a mile from the convention center, the tricky subject of a convention headquarters hotel confronted the sales team and Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive of the convention bureau.

Armstrong, who sold the charms of Baltimore at the booth yesterday, relied on direct, candid approach stressing the assets.

"We're saying, 'We have Inner Harbor East and potentially a Grand Hyatt connected to the convention center,' " he said, referring to Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos' proposed, 850-room headquarters hotel that would be built on city-owned land. "This is what we promise. This is what we have. Inner Harbor East can't be categorized as the convention center hotel. But we're looking forward to the other site being developed as a headquarters hotel," Armstrong said.

The city tried to show as much with a glossy new brochure extolling downtown, its hotels and the newly expanded convention center; detailed descriptions of new and coming attractions, including the Ravens stadium at Camden Yards; a list of Baltimore Bicentennial events; a chronology of the Inner Harbor's redevelopment.

But a "Baltimore Street Map & Visitor Guide" missed some recent history: There's no Columbus Center or Power Plant on it.

Another very visible 25-page glossy at the Baltimore booth, though, looked ahead with "visions for the new millennium" at the Wyndham, the heavily subsidized hotel the Board of Estimates just approved.

The brochure, the only one for a hotel at the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association booth, opens with a quote from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke: "The Wyndham Inner Harbor East Hotel is going to be one of the best hotels on the East coast, and will attract people from all over the country."

While the brochure may make the Wyndham sound like a done deal, it still needs approval of the City Council and the voters in a 1998 referendum.

George Williams, tourism director for the state, which financed more than $100 million of the convention center's expansion, offered a different take. "I think you've got to listen to the meeting planners, listen to your customers. And there's no doubt which one of these two hotels would be better for them -- the Grand Hyatt."

Williams said he's confident that both hotels could be built within the next five to six years if the city is marketed well.

But competition from near and far awaited at every turn amid the sea of exhibits.

At the Philadelphia booth, sales manager Kara Coleman handed out buttons that said "Philadelphia -- the place that loves you back" -- and boasted of the 1,200-room Marriott next to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, as well as 2,000 more rooms coming in the next few years.

San Antonio sales reps stood by a backdrop of lighted Riverwalk photos and told of impending completion of its 1,200-room convention headquarters hotel and plans for more. Atlantic City proudly displayed its two-month-old, granite-glass-and-steel convention center -- nearly twice as big as Baltimore's -- and its ambitious plans to become the choice not only of gamblers but some of the world's biggest conventions.

And while Baltimore gushes over a Hard Rock Cafe, Memphis claims a new Elvis theme restaurant among $4 billion in new and coming attractions.

However intense the competition, for three days Baltimore has one thing going for it none of the others don't: the chance to show off on its home turf.

Baltimore, which lobbied for several years to bring MPI, hopes to make the most of it with $1.2 million worth of wining and dining culminating tonight with a convention center gala. It's built around Baltimore's Hollywood claims to fame, including "Diner," "Tin Men," and "Hairspray," and features performances by Kevin Bacon (with his band) and Sheena Easton.

That would be after a "taste of Baltimore" at the National Aquarium Sunday night, a huge party at Bohager's Bar & Grill last night, an optional Annapolis tour, a golf tournament and toasts keeping taps flowing at every bar downtown.

So far, Sandra Bloodsworth, a meeting planner for the 2,000-member Texas Oilmen, likes what she sees.

"The convention center is just absolutely beautiful," she said.

But will she book Baltimore, which hopes to reap $100 million worth of business from the convention here? The answer, in an industry where wooing can take years, probably won't come anytime soon.

Pub Date: 8/05/97

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