On Saturdays, tourists find city has no room at the inn But hotels struggle through rest of week

November 22, 1991|By Ellen James Martin

Every Saturday the switchboard at Baltimore's Harbor Court Hotel pulses as callers try to book rooms for the night. Most call from the National Aquarium (the hotel operators can tell by the gurgling ocean sounds in the background). They're out-of-towners who realize they can't see all the Inner Harbor sights without staying over.

"Most Saturday nights, we're 100 percent booked, with a waiting list," said Susan Karr, Harbor Court's reservation manager.

Recession or not, business thrives for downtown Baltimore hotels on weekends. But after the Saturday night peak, a lull begins Sunday that lasts late into the week.

"One day a week does not a great hotel market make," says Alan Villaverde, general manager of Stouffer Harborplace Hotel.

The average 1991 occupancy rate for downtown hotels has fallen to 67 percent, off 2 or 3 percentage points from last year, estimates Mr. Villaverde, president of the Greater Baltimore Hotel and Motel Association.

"A two-point swing in occupancy can be a big difference for a hotel. For a hotel to be truly profitable and successful, it has to run close to 70 percent occupancy," he says.

Throughout the nation, the hotel industry has suffered a downturn this year. Conventions and other travel plans were canceled during the Persian Gulf war because of concern about terrorism. And the recession has brought curtailments in business travel.

But Mr. Villaverde and other local hoteliers fear problems for Baltimore's hotel industry could outlast the recession.

They worry that cuts in state and city budgets for tourist promotion could mean fewer tourists visiting Baltimore and that the city will be increasingly unable to attract conventions unless the Convention Center is expanded.

"I'm concerned about the health of the hospitality industry here," says Richard Morgan, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Baltimore.

Baltimore's Convention Center used to be able to accommodate 90 percent of the conventions held in the United States but can now handle just 70 percent, he says.

Conventions have increased in size during the last decade, but the capacity of Convention Center has remained the same, he observes.

"What's needed is a doubling of the Convention Center, from 175,000 to 350,000 square feet, by 1995," Mr. Villaverde says. He and others in Baltimore's hotel industry have lobbied heavily for a proposal, now before the General Assembly, which would expand the Convention Center just west of the current facility.

City hoteliers say convention and tourist business is essential to keep occupancy rates propped up for hotels in the Baltimore area. They say the region cannot afford to rely on business travel alone -- particularly as the number of corporate headquarters located in and around the city declines.

"Baltimore is not exactly a mecca for Fortune 500 companies," says Mr. Morgan of the Hyatt Regency.

But Maryland's ability to promote Baltimore and other tourist destinations has been impaired by state budget cutbacks, says Dean Kenderdine, an assistant secretary of Maryland's Department of Economic and Employment Development.

"We in the office of tourism development have been forced to severely cut back the amount of advertising to promote the state as a whole," Mr. Kenderdine notes.

Compared with last year, the state's tourism budget has been cut by 25 percent, to $4 million, he says. And this year's state grant to Baltimore for tourism promotion was cut from $50,000, to $5,000, Mr. Kenderdine says.

Many of those who now stay in downtown hotels on Saturday nights are couples or families who travel from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia or the Washington suburbs. The phenomenon of the Saturday nighters, who are strongly drawn by the Inner Harbor, pushes downtown hotel occupancy rates to levels even higher than those of other cities, such as Washington, on the one weekend night.

But tourism leaders worry that eventually even weekend tourism could be affected by lower levels of promotion.

"The key thing here is that tourism has to be constantly promoted and enhanced because you're dealing with a very fickle traveler who is heavily influenced by promotion and advertising," Mr. Villaverde says. "It's a very fragile industry."

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