Selling Baltimore via the media Travel journalists sample Baltimore

June 23, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

They stayed in luxury hotel rooms overlooking the Inner Harbor, caught a ballgame at Oriole Park, devoured the seven-course feast they watched chefs prepare. They marveled at museums and marine mammals, sailed aboard a schooner at sunset, nibbled endless appetizers and sipped drinks at stops along the way.

And they got paid to do it -- all in a weekend's work.

In the lexicon of the travel industry, the half-dozen journalists who stayed at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel recently explored Baltimore on a weekend press "fam," or familiarization, tour. Renaissance, which sponsored the tour, provided rooms and meals free, and city attractions waived admission fees for one simple reason: Good ink out of town means big bucks back home.

Because travel journalists' impressions reach untold millions of potential visitors each year, they're wined and dined and whisked from place to place here and elsewhere, in hopes that a good time will translate into good copy.

Courtesy of hotels, the Maryland tourism office, attractions, restaurants and a city tourism agency, groups of journalists trek the state on such tours a few dozen times a year. They do city tours, statewide tours, country inn tours, sports tours, African-American heritage tours, romantic weekend tours, Civil War tours, mountain tours, shore tours, even haunted house tours.

This time, it was Baltimore's turn to do its best to thoroughly

impress the itinerant guests: a veteran Southern Living magazine travel writer, the editor and a photographer for Cleveland Magazine, a writer for a regional newspaper on children and families, a broadcast crew that produces travel shows and syndicates them to radio and cable TV stations throughout the nation.

After months of planning, tailoring itineraries to story angles, checking credentials, arranging accommodations, transportation and "comp" admissions, it all came down to a whirlwind weekend when you pray for sunshine.

"When you make this type of commitment and do this much work and choreograph so many different tourism providers, you want it to be like a wedding day," said Gary A. Oster, general manger of the Renaissance. "You want it to be so special, so perfect that you have totally captivated all those participating, including yourself."

The wooing began on a Friday evening with a welcome reception in a 12th-story Renaissance suite that normally costs $1,200 a night. A tableful of appetizers -- shrimp, meats, cheeses -- awaited the guests. Drinks flowed freely at the tour's first open bar as a 10-minute video of Baltimore montages played.

Carroll Armstrong, president of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, shuffled cue cards and rattled off some of the half-billion dollars' worth of coming tourist attractions and expansions in the city. Then, before leaving, he cut to the chase, in less-than-subtle terms: "We hope you all have a good time -- and write good stories."

Onward, to dinner, a two-hour exercise in tasteful gluttony, the likes of which no typical tourist has ever experienced. In the Renaissance's kitchen -- decked out with a red carpet, flowers and plants, fine china on two tables -- executive chef Tim Mullen and his staff prepared and described each course: Maryland soft shell crabs, Chilean black bass, red snapper, halibut, grouper, salad that looked like art, seared breast of duckling, Maryland crab cakes, an elaborate dessert with raspberries and chocolate.

The first night set the tone for the weekend: food, drink, sights, more food, more drink, more sights. Saturday's 14-hour itinerary left three hours of free time to "explore Baltimore on your own," sandwiched somewhere between a visit to Top of the World observation deck at the World Trade Center, a private water taxi tour of the harbor, a ballgame at Camden Yards, drinks and hors d'oeuvres at the Rusty Scupper, another water taxi to catch a dinner cruise out of Fells Point on the Nighthawk sailboat.

The predicted rain never came, sparing the organizers from Renaissance and Image Dynamics, a public relations agency, the task of executing the indoor contingency plan. By evening, as the Nighthawk sliced its way through the waters off Fort McHenry, a cool breeze blew, Jimmy Buffett sang "Lovely Cruise" on the speakers and the sunset framed the downtown skyline in oranges and pinks, a tailor-made postcard shot -- or magazine cover.

Standing on the sailboat's deck, scribbling on his legal pad, Southern Living's Les Thomas said this indeed is work: To write for travelers, you must become one. (Which doesn't mean partying into the night, but crashing, exhausted, by 10 or 11, waking at 7 to do it again each day.)

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