When looking to fill hotel rooms, many hoteliers have responded to the recession by seeking business closer to their own backyards.
In these days of travel-phobia and corporate penny-pinching, downtown hoteliers have responded by concentrating their sales efforts closer to home. Stung by a steep drop in leisure travel, the hotels are trying to lure more group and corporate business from other mid-Atlantic states.
An informal survey of sales and marketing managers of Inner Harbor hotels reveals a collective shift in sales strategy over the last several months. The hoteliers, citing fierce competition, generally decline to discuss occupancy rates, revenues or specific customers, but many said they were lowering prices and increasing complimentary services, such as free breakfast or refreshments to lure cost-conscious customers.
Discounted room rates and weekend specials -- including free tickets to area attractions -- and free amenities abound, as the sales and marketing departments at the hotels try to drum up additional business from New York, New Jersey, Washington and Pennsylvania.
The Harbor Court Hotel, for example, is putting together packages that offer meeting planners about 20 percent off suites, conference rooms and audiovisual equipment, according to Judy A. Dumrauf, director of sales and marketing for the hotel.
"We felt we needed to do a little extra push this year," Ms. Dumrauf said.
And, to sweeten the deal a bit more, the hotel's throwing in free coffee during meeting breaks, Ms. Dumrauf said.
Response to the promotion, which began in January and will continue through March, has helped keep the hotel's performance on par with that of a year ago, in spite of the softness in demand. "I don't think we would have been able to do that if we hadn't given them a little better package," Ms. Dumrauf said.
Revenues from meetings constitute 45 percent of Harbor Court's business.
The discounts and freebies have emerged as competition heats up among hotels in the face of shrinking demand for rooms. Many hotels rely heavily on the meeting business because it can fill up blocks of rooms at one time, boosting ever-important occupancy rates.
Against the backdrop of the recession, "It's a lot tougher to get the business," said Mary Lou Pollack, director of sales and marketing at the Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor.
"We have to work a lot harder than we did in the past."
Meeting planners, like air travelers, have developed a shop-around mentality as they seek out bargains. Hotels, in response, are compelled to be more "flexible" in their pricing or be faced with empty rooms, said Andy Lutz, director of sales and marketing at the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore.
"If you don't like the price that's quoted to you on a group reservation, ask again," advises Mr. Lutz.
"It's an extremely competitive business and the more the economy tightens up the more competitive it is," he says.
To better spread the word of their promotions, some area hotels are beefing up their sales and marketing departments.
Stouffer Harbor Place Hotel, the Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor, the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore and the Pier 5 Clarion Inn are among the hotels in the city that have hired additional salespeople during the last several months.
And, many hotels have supplemented their sales force with direct-mail advertising and more aggressive phone solicitation of potential customers.
The hotels routinely purchase the mailing lists of meeting planners associations to use as a starting point for cultivating new business.