Data on visitors will be updated BACVA planning benchmark studies in coming months


To better understand who visits Baltimore, the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association will spend more than $100,000 in the coming months on benchmarking studies that evaluate tourists and the services they receive here.

"I believe that in order to make intelligent decisions, especially when it comes to having limited dollars for marketing, you need to have the research, understand the marketplace," said Carroll R. Armstrong, president and CEO of BACVA. "We don't have that information currently. We have bits and pieces of it."

The existing data, primarily from the 1980s and early '90s, are stale, Armstrong said. That data reports, for example, that most of the people who visit Baltimore by car come from southern New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Armstrong believes that the radius of automobile travelers has expanded.

In three separate studies, Armstrong hopes to develop benchmarks by assessing the categories of leisure travel and convention and business travel, and seeing whether the visits to Baltimore by people in those categories met their expectations.

Armstrong hopes to answer basic questions about the 7 million people who visit: who they are, what they want, and the percentage who stay for the day and overnight. Those visits are estimated to represent a $1 billion economic impact.

"When it's all said and done, we're going to be very intelligent about who our visitors are," Armstrong said. "We're putting out ,, money. I want to know what I'm really getting back."

Armstrong expects to have the results of two of the evaluations by the end of the summer, and the other, more complex evaluation in the fall.

The most involved evaluation, estimated to cost $50,000 or more, is being done in partnership with the state Stadium Authority and the Office of Tourism, and will examine Baltimore as an overall product. It will be a report card on services here, covering everything from the moment a visitor picks up the phone to inquire about Baltimore to the time he or she leaves.

That study will focus primarily on business travelers, including a look at all conventions from January 1997 through June 1998. It also will include data from 20,000 leisure travelers who recently visited the city. "The potential impact is, we're going to become very intelligent about who our visitors are, what their habits are," Armstrong said. "When we start analyzing data, it can probably tell us where we need to spend our marketing dollars."

The idea for the study evolved from an evaluation of the summer 1997 convention of Meeting Professionals International that turned up troubling anecdotal reports. They included concerns related to taxis and transportation, restaurants, hotels, the convention center and the overall sense of security, said George Williams, state director of tourism.

"The indications we got led us to believe that we needed to look at the quality of services across the board," Williams said. "If we can by this study process identify our areas of weakness, we can more rationally target solutions."

A longtime concern of tourism officials has been the state's ranking below the national average in per capita spending by visitors. Preliminary 1997 numbers show the state at $128 a day, below the national average of $130, Williams said.

"When you take that times 19 or 20 million people, that $3 equates to $60 million a year," he said, adding that the gap is even wider between Baltimore and markets such as Orlando, New York and San Francisco, where spending averages are closer to $180 or $190.

Another evaluation Armstrong has planned will examine the success of the winter campaign and will cost between $12,000 and $15,000. That campaign, Baltimore on Ice, spent about $338,000 for radio and television commercials, as well as four-color print ads that appeared in most of the major newspapers in Baltimore's tourist markets.

The number of out-of-town inquiries about the city's winter campaign doubled this year, increasing from 11,362 in 1996-1997 to 22,681 this season.

A third study will provide a profile of visitors, from details about their credit card use to the hotels they choose. It will cost about $48,000.

Careful funding of tourism efforts is especially critical in Maryland. The state is projected to spend $8.6 million on tourism for the 1997-98 fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, in contrast to neighboring Virginia, which will spend an estimated $18.3 million, according to statistics provided by the Travel Industry Association of America.

"Virginia does a good job, historically," Armstrong said. "They've seen the wisdom of spending dollars to bring tourists. We have what we have. We've got to be very intelligent about what we're doing, and how we're doing it."

Pennsylvania, for instance, is expected to spend $19 million on tourism in fiscal 1997-1998.

Armstrong is considering another study that would evaluate conventions and meetings specifically, focusing on the top 100 customers in the first-tier market. The study would address potential customers who have not used Baltimore facilities, asking them about their requirements and whether they would consider Baltimore if the city met their needs. He estimates that such a study would cost about $15,000.

Armstrong hopes to use the new information partly to help reach his goal of boosting the number of visitors from 7 million to 7.4 million by the end of the year.

"We need to look at how we can move those numbers up," he said. "A lot of things emanate from the data. The more intelligent you are, the better decisions you're going to make in the future. I don't want to be out there guessing."

Pub Date: 6/10/98

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