BACVA called ineffective in partial report


Baltimore's convention and visitors bureau is an ineffective focal point for the city's convention and tourism industry, and suffers from weak leadership and a poorly managed sales team, according to the summary of an external evaluation of the agency that was released yesterday.

The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association (BACVA) is burdened with too many layers of management and has poorly defined roles and responsibilities for its employees, according to the summary.

The agency should be held accountable for the city's disappointing convention center bookings in recent years, the document says - but it has not been.

After twice reversing its decision to disclose the critical evaluation of its performance, the publicly financed association agreed yesterday to release a 15-page summary of the report.

The full report, which BACVA refuses to release, was completed shortly before the agency's then=chief executive, Carroll R. Armstrong, resigned under pressure last month.

While praising the agency responsible for Baltimore's convention and tourism business for its "creative and competent" marketing efforts and a talented staff, the report was critical of the association's senior management and its overall organizational structure.

Changing that structure and "strengthening" leadership in the agency were among the report's primary recommendations.

The report also said that the number of tourists visiting Baltimore has increased, but concluded: "The bad news is that industry stakeholders say BACVA has had little to do with the increase."

Among the report's conclusions:

Senior management does not work as a team.

The agency's sales effort has been poorly managed and "plagued by high turnover" among sales personnel and at top manager levels.

Decision-making is "slow and cumbersome ... and frequently unplanned."

Concerning the association's role as a leader for the convention and tourism industry in Baltimore: "The feedback is that BACVA has not been effective in this area."

The review and evaluation of the association's performance, conducted by a private consulting firm, came after The Sun reported that the convention center failed to generate the conventions, trade shows and attendance promised six years ago when the facility began a $151 million expansion.

The evaluation suggested that the association does not deserve all of the blame for the city's weakened convention center business.

A general downturn in the economy, the lack of a "headquarters" hotel in Baltimore, poor local transportation and perceptions about the city's crime rate also played a role, it concluded.

"The original targets and goals were likely overly optimistic in not being able to predict adverse business conditions such as the economy and problems with the airline industry," the summary said. "However ... there apparently has not been an explicit accountability."

The city is proceeding with plans to spend millions of dollars on a new convention headquarters hotel, which is expected to entail a substantial public subsidy.

The association has named a 20-member search committee to seek out a new leader, and Armstrong, who remains a consultant to the BACVA board, is serving on that committee.

The search for new leadership comes at a time when hotel room bookings for the first half of the fiscal year have plunged 62 percent from a year ago.

At the same time, the Baltimore Convention Center's operating deficit is swelling, and is expected to nearly double this fiscal year. It is projected to increase again in fiscal 2004.

The report also determined that the association overstated its number of members by 220 in fiscal 2002, "and by more for the prior two years."

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