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Meeting planners size up downtown

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Who better to judge a city than the people who decide where thousands of others will hold business and professional meetings for decades to come?

So, it's with open ears that the sales team that pitches Baltimore is listening this week to the thoughts of nearly 1,000 association executives and meeting planners who are gathered here for a meeting of the American Society of Association Executives.

The local sales force has been hearing a lot of positive feedback on Baltimore, accompanied by some thoughts on the city's limitations. And they hope that feedback will pay off by producing future meetings in the city worth many millions of dollars.

The meeting planners are in town as the city's convention bureau is poised to release its quarterly report today, expected to show strong bookings for Baltimore's travel industry this year.

"Things are going great," said Leslie R. Doggett, president and chief executive of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "They've exceeded their expectations for attendance. We get to showcase Baltimore to our clients, and they get to experience what it's like to bring a convention to Baltimore."

More than 25,000 association executives and suppliers belong to the American Society of Association Executives, including meeting planners from leading trade organizations, membership societies and volunteer organizations across the United States and in 36 countries.

"Because ASAE is made up of association executives who hold their own meetings, looking at the particular site is always important to them," said Greta Kotler, senior vice president of professional development and credentialing for ASAE.

"They have to decide where to hold their own meetings. Every place they go, they're thinking of planning their own future meeting."

Baltimore tourism officials are anticipating $1.2 million in direct spending here this week by the association members and hope to impress them sufficiently to schedule more meetings here.

"The best scenario would be that people walk away from the conference with Baltimore top-of-mind as a destination both for meetings and for leisure," Doggett said. "Hopefully, it will translate into business. Hopefully, you'll see a spurt in the next year's booking cycle."

An estimated 20 percent of the executives attending the larger annual meeting of the ASAE will book their own meetings in the host city over the five years that follow, according to ASAE statistics.

For the 2002 meeting held in Denver, an estimated $1.7 billion was projected in future convention business. For the 2003 meeting held in Hawaii, the future business generated by the ASAE meeting was projected at $1.3 billion.

The meeting executives and planners visiting Baltimore said the city has a beautiful waterfront, is affordable, is easily accessible by air, rail and car and has good hotels within walking distance. The Baltimore Convention Center is bright and easy to use and has a stable work force of people who remember clients from year-to-year.

Not big enough

On the flip side, many note the convention center is not big enough for some groups - it couldn't accommodate the ASAE's much larger annual meeting for instance - and some large groups would have to spread out in too many hotels to be practical.

The lack of a headquarters hotel is not an issue for Pamela A. Troop, director of meeting operations for ASAE, since her organization doesn't designate a main hotel anyway. And she said she hasn't heard much concern about it from others attending this week's gathering.

"You have so many hotels so close to the Inner Harbor and more coming," Troop said.

Family attractions

A 750-room Hilton is planned as a convention headquarters hotel just north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The project, proposed by Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, would open in 2006 or 2007.

"You don't have mega-hotels that could accommodate a meeting for 6,000," said Mark T. Engle, principal at Association Management Center, which manages about 25 associations, the bulk of which are health-care related. "For some that's an inhibitor."

For those interested in bringing a family along, the requirements may be different, Engle noted.

"Some folks might find other venues a little more exciting to bring a family to than Baltimore, if you're competing with places like San Francisco or Orlando," he said. "That's tough competition."

Engle said his company plans about 30 annual meetings a year ranging from 100 to 6,000 attendees, and all but two of them have the potential to come to Baltimore in any given year.

"You've got a great product in Baltimore," he said.

Philip Lesser, vice president of Bostrom, a Chicago consulting, outsourcing and management firm that works with about 50 associations and professional societies, said he doesn't see much "downside" to Baltimore.

Initial reluctance

"We find some attendees that may be reluctant to come to Baltimore, but once they get here, they really like it and then they want to come back," he said. "I came to my first meeting here in the mid-Eighties, and I didn't know what to expect. But I was mesmerized. Now there's so much more."

Barbara S. Belmont, chairman of the ASAE board, said the American School Food Service Association, where she is executive director, is living proof that ASAE meetings do bring future business.

The Alexandria, Va.-based food service group found itself without a place to hold its annual meeting in 2001 when Atlanta was going to have to change the dates of its meeting. Belmont said she had never considered Nashville, Tenn., before, but because she had recently been to an ASAE meeting there, she was familiar with what it had to offer and knew that it could meet their needs.

New attractions

"We ended up going to Opryland," she said. "We had the biggest convention ever."

And she particularly was excited to hear about new attractions coming on line in Baltimore in the next year, because her food service group is bringing its annual meeting of 7,000 to 8,000 people here in July 2005. It is the group's first visit to the city and has been booked since 1998 or 1999, she said. Her organization had to wait until the convention center was expanded in order to fit.

"We do share information when we have positive experiences," Belmont said of the association executives. "A lot of them will go back and tell their meeting planners to look into Baltimore."

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