Dip in conventions expected to cost city millions Slow 1993 bookings cause pessimism

June 27, 1992|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Staff Writer

The number of conventions in Baltimore is expected to drop drastically next year, costing businesses millions of dollars in lost revenue.

For 1993, 86 conventions and meetings have been booked in Baltimore, said Wayne Chappell, executive director of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. Last year Baltimore played host to 394 conventions, and 332 have been booked through the end of this year.

Mr. Chappell estimated that the city's convention revenue would decline by $60 million next year.

The association and local hotels are scrambling to fill the void, but Mr. Chappell said it already is too late to make up for the loss of conventions that require rooms in three or more hotels. Those citywide conventions book space at least two years in advance.

Fourteen citywide conventions are scheduled for Baltimore next year, compared with 29 last year and 26 this year.

Mr. Chappell blamed the drop on the state's hesitation to expand theConvention Center to accommodate a trend toward larger conventions.

The convention association has been lobbying for several years for a $125 million expansion that would double the size of the 115,000-square-foot center on Pratt Street.

The General Assembly has approved funding only for preliminary architectural studies.

The projected convention business looks better in 1994, but Mr. Chappell said he doesn't believe it will return to current levels.

"What we're worried is that 1993 is a harbinger of things to come," he said. "I think we're losing our market share."

Mr. Chappell based his $60 million estimate on national studies showing that the average attendee spends $1,000 in food, lodging,transportation and entertainment during the course of a convention. The figures don't include the loss of restaurant and hotel tax revenues, which threatens city coffers.

Hoping to offset the loss, the convention association and Baltimore hotels have been working to attract smaller conventions and corporate meetings. Last night, the association and the hotels spent $20,000 to treat 140 association executives from Washington to an Orioles game and a reception, hoping to persuade them to use Baltimore facilities for their meetings next year.

Next week in New York, the association will have a reception for executives on the clipper Pride of Baltimore, asking them to bring business to Baltimore. It also is mailing pleas to local companies.

"We're turning up the heat to do something about 1993," Mr. Chappell said.

The Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel has increased its marketing staff and stepped up efforts to lure small business groups. said General Manager Michael S. Whipple. "I'm not ready to throw in the towel," he said.

Convention experts say that the projected downturn in Baltimore's convention business could be a cyclical problem but that a more likely factor is the increasing competition the city is facing.

Philadelphia will open a new 435,000-square-foot convention center next year; Charlotte, N.C., recently began construction of a 300,000-square-foot center; and Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta have expandedtheir facilities in recent years.

Baltimore's center is too small to capture major conventions, said Roy Evans, executive vice president of the Professional Convention Management Association in Birmingham, Ala.

"They need a bigger convention facility," said Mr. Evans, noting that associations are requiring more space for exhibits and multiple meeting rooms.

Cities hoping to capture major conventions need facilities of at

least 300,000 square feet, he said.

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