Study calls for steps to attract conventions

The Baltimore Sun

To attract more conventions to Baltimore, city tourism officials must work more efficiently with the convention center and the hotel industry to streamline bookings, address the city's crime problem and better market its attractions, according to a study released yesterday.

"If you can get the team to pull together all in the same direction, you're going to get better results," said David R. Evans, a Seattle-based analyst and one of the study's authors. "There should probably be one governance body over them, and that's going to help a great deal."

The study, "Building the Future of Destination Baltimore," which cost $30,000 and consisted of 100 confidential interviews with convention planners, leaders in the city's tourism industry and city officials, was commissioned by the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

Its new leader, Thomas J. Noonan, is assessing the city's tourism industry's strengths and weaknesses as he attempts to turn around the beleaguered organization, which has announced a steep decline in convention bookings for next year.

Noonan arrived in January, replacing Leslie R. Doggett, who resigned in May after several months' absence, noting health and family issues. Doggett was chosen in 2003 to lead the agency, whose previous leader was fired after the discovery that booking and membership numbers were inflated.

The study's key recommendations include the creation of a single board to oversee BACVA and the Baltimore Convention Center and for those organizations to work more seamlessly with the hotel industry to attract conventions. It also calls for an increase in BACVA's marketing budget and sales staff and the development of a "backyard marketing" initiative which would engage the city's corporate leaders in selling Baltimore as a destination.

BACVA's annual operating budget of $8.8 million falls below those of its primary competitors in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington. And the city also falls short in comparison with those cities in the amount of exhibit space available and the number of hotel rooms.

Baltimore is building a publicly financed Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel near Camden Yards, which is expected to open next year and is designed to attract tourists and conventioneers.

"I think everybody in town is ready to embrace some change," Noonan said. "It's about how we can be more strategic and how we, BACVA, the convention center and the hotels can really work as a team. We've got a great building, walking distance to many attractions. ... I would really hate to compete against us if we get all our ducks in order.

"We have to have a little bit of thick skin about these things. Sometimes it's not easy to hear these things. We have the public's trust and the public's money. And we've got to grow our meetings here."

Andrew B. Frank, the city's deputy mayor for economic development, said Mayor Sheila Dixon recognizes the city's tourism industry as one of its most important assets and said funding it "is definitely an area which we believe investing in will produce a return."

Peggy Daidakis, executive director of the Baltimore Convention Center, disputed the impression that her agency and other tourism officials aren't working together.

BACVA "is the lead organization to market and sell," Daidakis said. "But our sales team works in coordination to do site tours, review sales leads and review tentative plans. ... If that's not a connection, I don't know what is."

"I think a good next step would be to establish the foundation of what works now, what could be improved upon and how we go forward from there," she said.

The study also mentioned the condition of the Convention Center, which was built in 1979 and underwent its last major renovations a decade ago, as a handicap.

"I have a list of about $25 million worth of capital projects in the next 10 years," Daidakis said. "A new roof, audio system, I'm always looking at the schedules. I see our warts every day when I walk through our building wishing for a bazillion more dollars."

BACVA officials have taken steps to implement at least one of the recommendations, a partnership among sister cities that Baltimore does not compete directly with for convention dollars, Noonan said.

The move would allow Baltimore to compete with what the study identified as the city convention industry's largest threat: the planned National Harbor complex in Prince George's County, which will house the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center and is to open next year. Officials there are aggressively courting conventions that have come to Baltimore in the past, the study said.

Gaylord Hotels, which operates properties near Nashville, Tenn., Dallas and Orlando, Fla., has arranged multiyear deals with groups for conventions in each of its properties, Noonan said, a strategy that he called "a very effective model." He said he hopes to re-create that with cities nationwide. The partnership could be announced as early as next month.

The study also identified Baltimore's persistent crime problem as a deterrent to convention planners, noting a plethora of aggressive panhandlers.

"People walk around, and they all of a sudden get hit on by these panhandlers, and it makes them uncomfortable," Evans said. "Every city has crime, there's no question about it. The people are going online now, meeting planners are checking crime statistics. ... It's a perception issue that we think needs to be addressed. Everybody mentions it, but when you come here it's not necessarily the reality. It's unfortunate, I think."

Matt Jablow, a Police Department spokesman, said crime in the city is lower than in previous years and that the area around the Inner Harbor is one of the city's safest.

Key Recommendations

Create a single body to oversee the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association and the Baltimore Convention Center

Increase BACVA's overall operating budget, funding for marketing and sales staff

Partner with complementary cities across the country to lure conventioneers

Increase advertising in underserved markets, including African-Americans, Latinos and the gay and lesbian community

Focus on engaging local corporations in assisting BACVA's pursuit of trade association and professional organizations

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