Throngs awaiting reopened center

November 25, 1995|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

The square dancers will be here, all 20,000 of them. So, too, will 15,000 Veterans of Foreign Wars, 13,000 orthodontists, 10,000 window-covering experts, 9,000 construction specialists, 7,000 veterinarians, 5,000 pharmacists.

They've marked their calendars -- some for dates into the next century -- to schmooze, catch up with old buddies, share trade secrets, reminisce or some combination thereof at the expanded Baltimore Convention Center.

Though completion of the Convention Center's expansion remains 10 months away, the city's convention bureau has booked 96 conventions and trade shows, whose delegates are expected to pump some $475 million into the local economy.

Of those bookings, 37 came as a direct result of the $150 million expansion and renovation.

The larger gatherings simply couldn't fit in the existing center, which is about half the size of what the new center will be when expanded. Others wouldn't have been able to come here because of another simultaneous gathering, but the newly expanded center will accommodate two mid-size meetings at once.

The record pace of bookings for the expanded center confirms what many had long argued -- that Baltimore routinely lost larger conventions to competing cities because it couldn't accommodate them.

"There's absolutely no question that this gives credence to the fact that the expansion was necessary long before it was ever approved, and there was enough business out there that wanted to come to Baltimore," said Dale Garvin, acting executive director of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association (BACVA).

Indeed, the 37 additional gatherings made possible by the expansion will bring 214,700 convention delegates to town from 1996 to 2003. They'll book 384,542 nights in hotel rooms, spend nearly $200 million and contribute nearly $11 million to city and state tax coffers.

The first phase of the expansion, to be completed in September, will add 185,000 square feet of meeting space, 27 meeting rooms and a 37,000-square-foot ballroom.

The second phase will refurbish the existing building, and the newly expanded center will be complete in April 1997 with some 300,000 square feet of meeting space and 50 meeting rooms.

Even with the expansion, the center will be too small to handle the biggest gatherings, such as national political conventions.

But it will hold gatherings as large as 20,000 and be able to play host to roughly 87 percent of all U.S. conventions and trade shows, compared with 67 percent now.

Early bookings represent a healthy start, by all accounts, but jubilation is tempered. Without a hefty increase in funding for marketing, according to convention and tourism leaders, the city will inevitably lose its competitive edge to better financed operations and fall short of the promise of creating 6,000 jobs and generating $30 million a year in new tax revenues by 2000.

Kathleen Ratcliffe, BACVA's convention marketing director, said the surge in bookings partly reflects pent-up demand for a bigger Convention Center in Baltimore, aggressive marketing and considerable trade press about the expansion.

"We can ride that publicity for a while," she said.

She said the expansion enabled BACVA to lure large gatherings such as the 10,000-delegate National Association of College Stores, the 10,000-delegate Society of Nuclear Medicine and the 6,000-delegate National Fire Protection Association.

Agreeing with hoteliers, other convention bureau officials and industry analysts, she said that bookings created by the industry buzz surrounding an expansion will fade, and the city risks losing millions in potential business.

Baltimore's convention bureau lags well behind competitors, which typically spend millions more each year to lure gatherings in the high-stakes, $50 billion-a-year meetings industry.

BACVA receives about $2 million of its $2.8 million operating budget from the city, the remainder from member dues and reservation fees for booking hotel rooms.

The bulk of the budget, about $1.6 million, goes toward salaries and benefits; the rest pays for trade shows, sales calls, &r promotions and advertising to lure conventions and tourists.

As scores of cities have built or expanded convention centers, tripling their number to more than 350 since the 1970s, the industry has grown fiercely competitive, prompting other cities to increase marketing and mount slick advertising campaigns.

Meantime, Baltimore has reduced spending to promote the center.

Even with the state agreeing to kick in about $550,000 for advertising this year, the city is clearly outspent. San Antonio, for example, spent $9 million last year on its convention bureau, about three times Baltimore's expenditures, and $1 million on ads for its convention center alone.

Philadelphia spent about $4 million on marketing its convention center and $2 million on tourism promotion, and Washington spent $5.6 million for its convention bureau, according to information provided by BACVA.

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