Baltimore has landed its biggest convention ever - the Shriners' annual meeting, expected to attract as many as 30,000 people in the summer of 2005.
The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association announced yesterday that the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine will gather over the Fourth of July holiday for an event expected to contribute $30 million in direct spending and have an economic impact of $60 million on the region's economy.
"This is big," said David DuBois, president and chief executive officer of the Professional Convention Management Association, which represents more than 5,000 meeting professionals worldwide.
"When you're talking 30,000 people, it's one of the top 500 conventions in size in the country. Any time you can bring in a group of that size, the economic impact is always underestimated."
His association, based in Birmingham, Ala., estimates that there are 1.2 million meetings and conventions in the United States each year, with direct spending of about $100 billion, he said.
Large conventions like this one are the kind the city had counted on attracting with its $151 million expansion of the convention center, which was completed in April 1997.
"This is one of the most prestigious conventions from an economic impact standpoint that a city could host," said Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of the convention and visitors association.
"It's major league. It will say a lot for Baltimore. When other groups see that the Shriners have booked Baltimore, and they haven't even considered us, they may have to think about Baltimore."
Baltimore won the Shriners' convention over several other major cities, including Atlanta and Orlando, Fla., Armstrong said. The Shriners are expected to occupy 27 hotels in Baltimore and its surrounding counties, including downtown hotels that remain to be built.
The Shriners' convention is expected to reach a peak need of 8,000 hotel rooms a night, requiring accommodations in Annapolis, Hunt Valley and almost to Washington, local officials said.
Scheduled for July 4-8, 2005, the convention will feature two parades through the city. However, meetings and events will begin about June 26, keeping area hotels busy the week before the convention starts.
In recent history, the largest convention in Baltimore occurred March 5-10 when the Optical Fiber Communication Conference attracted 18,870 registered attendees, requiring 4,800 rooms during its peak night.
The group contributed $21.6 million in direct spending and $43.2 million in economic impact, according to the convention and visitors association.
Two nearly completed Marriott hotels, the Waterfront and the Courtyard, played significant roles in helping to win the Shriners' convention, Armstrong said.
"We've been trying for this for several years," he said. "We were successful this time around, I think, because the new Marriott and Marriott Courtyard will definitely be on line. It demonstrates a commitment by the city to moving Baltimore's convention package forward."
The Shriners plan to use several other proposed downtown hotels, including a 850-room hotel next to the convention center, the 267-room Embassy Suites at 1 Light St., and the 600-room Westin on the site of the old News-American building, Armstrong said.
Should those projects not be built by 2005, additional hotels would be required to accommodate the convention delegates, he said.
'Almost too big'
"It's challenging for us, because it's the largest convention the city will have ever seen," said Nancy Rizzo, director of sales for the Renaissance, the headquarters hotel for the convention. "It was tough for us to say, 'This is almost too big for us.'"
More than other conventions, an event of this size entailed plenty of negotiations, Rizzo said.
"The hotels had to make a lot of concessions in order to bring this here," she said.
"The hotel community really pulled together to make this happen. We had to think globally and not just for our individual hotels, because it's going to be so great for our city."
"It's a significant piece of business not only for the amount of money the Shriners will spend but also for the future business the Shriners will bring back," said Anne Heller, publisher of USAE, a trade publication in Bethesda that covers hotels, associations and convention and visitor bureaus.
"It has the potential for even more than $60 million."
The Shriners have gained worldwide recognition for their humanitarian work. For 77 years, the Shriners have operated a network of specialized hospitals that give free treatment to children with orthopedic disabilities and burn injuries.
New standard for city
This year, the group held its annual meeting in Boston. The 1999 convention was in Dallas.
As the Shriners head to Baltimore in 2005, the city has set a new standard for itself in citywide conventions.
"Baltimore can now say we can handle a convention of 30,000, so we can handle your convention of 4,000 with our eyes closed," said DuBois, of the convention management association.