City waging genteel fight for meetings

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- They're armed with lobster and heirloom tomatoes, with plush carpets and flattering lighting, with a custom-designed bus. With free-flowing Chateauneuf-du-Pape, with endearing little presents, with fawning attention.

Such elegant weaponry - one could almost forget there's true combat under way here as Baltimore, with its best crab cakes and confit, attempts to capture enough convention business to stay alive in a game that can be as gracious as it is ruthless.

In a corner of Washington's posh Ritz Carlton last week, Baltimore's convention sales team courted a roomful of decision-makers, people who might bring their lucrative annual meetings to Charm City - or choose to take them to a town that charms them more. At stake: millions of dollars in revenue for Baltimore and the fate of a the new convention hotel, the costliest public project in the city's history, that's expected to open next year.

"There were 45 people there," Tom Noonan, the man charged with shaking Baltimore from its convention bookings slump, said after the Ritz event. "I guarantee you, that's tens of millions in business sitting in that room - potentially for Baltimore.

"We're there to change perceptions. If you can change three or four or five people's perception about your city, that can be worth millions of dollars."

The city has its work cut out for it. Numbers released in February revealed a major decline in hotel room nights booked for Convention Center conferences in the next few years.

And with so much on the line, the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, of which Noonan is chairman and chief executive officer, has apparently decided that nothing attracts money like money - or at least the perfumed, wined and risotto'd perception of it.

At the Ritz, the city's pitchmen warmed up for an event this weekend that they call the "Super Bowl of conventions," the Annual Meeting and Exposition of the American Society of Association Executives and the Center for Association Leadership. It's a sprawling event in Chicago that's actually the annual meeting for the people who plan meetings - a convention for those who decide where to hold conventions.

If there were millions at play in Washington, in Chicago there will be billions, opportunity after opportunity for Baltimore to cash in. At the Ritz, Baltimore had its dress rehearsal.

In the hotel, they hover at the bottom of a graceful staircase, waiting for the clients with lemonade and tea - one doesn't want a parched client.

Along with chilled beverages and warm welcomes, intended customers also receive treats, little gifts the sales staff has tried to imbue with meaning, something to keep folks thinking "Baltimore."

Guests each get a pair of Crocs, those rubbery clogs with holes. Crocs go on feet, and in Baltimore, one must remember, "You're two feet away from everything."

By no accident, the slogan and the Crocs are featured on the deluxe, custom bus that carried the sales staff - and Mayor Sheila Dixon - from Baltimore to Washington for the sales lunch. Baltimore will also bring the bus to Chicago, where it will hover outside the convention, as BACVA spokeswoman Nancy Hinds says, "like a big rolling billboard for Baltimore."

Dixon, dressed in an immaculate white pantsuit, is playing an interesting role here. Where at a typical lunch the mayor would be the guest of honor, here she's a sales tactic, a way to underscore just how serious the city is about getting new business: so serious our mayor is here in person to ask for it herself.

Along with a number of her staff, the mayor moves with Baltimore banker, developer and professional soccer team owner Ed Hale into a room with fresh flowers and white tablecloths where lunch awaits.

Chef Cindy Wolf and her husBand, Tony Foreman, who own several fine dining establishments in town, have traveled to Washington, too, bringing food and even the wait staff from Charleston, their most exclusive venue.

Wolf takes over the kitchen while Forman strolls the tables pouring Sicilian wine. As Hale greets the crowd, servers in suits use silver tongs to delicately drop crusty rolls onto the clients' plates.

Smells of the sea envelop the room as the staff glides across the room with jumbo lump crabcakes nestled on a bed of Maryland Silver Queen corn. The heirloom tomato salad looks like art, all sun-kissed color and luscious shape. Is the golden puddle of passion fruit coulis alongside the chocolate torte supposed to look just like a shining coin?

To be sure, the six-course onslaught was nothing if not a message of money - a four-star, high-calorie hint that Baltimore might make for a classy choice.

Foreman and Wolf donated the food, figuring if their shellfish bisque helps lure any of these big conventions to town, some of these folks and their fat expense accounts might end up at Charleston.

"They win too," Hinds says.

Leslie Zeck, who manages events for the American Red Cross, sat at the table with Noonan, Hale and Dixon. She's bringing a meeting to Baltimore next year, but is planning another for 4,000 people. She's considering all sorts of East Coast options - maybe Washington, maybe Pittsburgh, maybe Richmond, Va., maybe Baltimore again.

The Red Cross wants an all-American city, a place that's got a lot to offer, but nothing too pretentious - or as Zeck says, "audacious" - nothing that would offend or alienate her members, many of whom come from small towns and not a lot of money.

As scrumptious as Charleston's menu might be, it's not what Zeck's looking for. She's more impressed by Dixon's woman-to-woman chat about bargains to be found at C-Mart. "She's a real person," Zeck says. "I just invited her to open our convention."

Such is the nature of this game. A convention can be booked - or lost - because of an offhand remark, a bad meal, a rainy tour.

E. Gwynn Breckenridge, the director of meetings for the International Association for Dental Research, who decides where as many as 6,000 professionals will convene, is choosing a spot for a March 2014 event. March is not Baltimore's most flattering month. On the upside, however, Baltimore has a dental museum - Breckenridge isn't going to find that in Philadelphia or Charlotte, N.C.

Jeremy Figoten, who's shopping for a site for the National Apartment Association's 2012 annual meeting, says he really couldn't care less about the spread Baltimore laid before him, or even that the mayor took the time to shake his hand.

"It doesn't really do anything for me," he says.

Figoten wants convention space that will comfortably hold his group, he wants a location that people can easily fly or drive to, he wants nightlife and things to do.

"So far Baltimore has filled all those needs," he says, but then quickly adds - so have many other cities. He hasn't even whittled his list beyond a dozen - everywhere from Las Vegas to Orlando, Fla., to New Orleans.

"Any city can hold a nice lunch," he says. "We're casting a wide net."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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