Convention Center chief is big on the small details Peggy Daidakis oversaw $151 million revamping

September 01, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

She shopped for stacking chairs, 20,000 of them; signed off on the carpet, all 36,000 square yards; and sampled delicacies before settling on a menu to feed up to 15,000 at one sitting.

Peggy Daidakis, executive director of the Baltimore Convention Center, insisted that she would decide on such details during planning for the center's $151 million expansion and renovation.

After all, she said, the success of the publicly financed project will hinge on the smallest of details.

"The building is bricks and mortar. There are lots of beautiful buildings," said Daidakis, a 45-year-old Baltimore native who joined the Baltimore Convention Center as a saleswoman in 1978 and worked her way to the top job.

"Our customers don't have to come here. They can choose to go to Philadelphia or Boston or Atlanta or Charlotte. What makes a difference is the experience that people have -- the service, the quality of food, the attention to details," she said.

And few details have escaped Daidakis' attention, from the time she sat with architects as they drew site sketches on napkins in a downtown restaurant more than three years ago.

Since then, she has immersed herself in the project, to the point that the 800,000-square-foot, four-story addition sometimes seems as familiar as her home. "Management by walking around," she calls her peripatetic work days, during which, equipped with hard hat and two-way radio, she often roams the site.

"I've got to get out and observe what's going on in the building," she said. "A lot of things appear different on paper, so I want to see what they look like in reality."

Whatever her job, she's never been one to spend days behind a desk, colleagues say.

"Whenever we had a big convention or show, there was Peggy walking around in her hands-on style, talking to one person with her and another on a walkie-talkie," recalled Robert Hillman, the Baltimore attorney who, as chairman of the quasi-public corporation that oversaw the center's operation and promotion, hired Daidakis in 1978. "She's a very kind of tough-minded, hands-on person who understands that you need to get jobs done and that customers are not really interested in why you can't do things."

Today, Daidakis is equally at home sorting out the intricacies of fiber-optics capabilities and new fine china.

She knows all about a "utility tunnel" providing electrical hookups along the exhibition floor, the latest epoxy finishes for movable dividing walls, how to best position the 8,400 new light fixtures to serve customers, and how to complement the green hues in the 61,000 square feet of imported glass when selecting custom-made carpeting.

Throughout construction of the addition, she has also overseen the daily operation of the existing convention center, with an annual operating budget of $7.8 million and a staff of 85 (to grow to about 145 in the coming year).

The center has accommodated and fed tens of thousands of conventioneers while an army of construction workers toiled next door. Normally, the conventions and the construction crews co-existed peacefully, without incident.

But when the explosives experts showed up to demolish Festival Hall and some exhibit space to make way for the expansion, Daidakis faced one of her toughest decisions: turning away business.

"There were times, especially at the beginning, when I had people at the convention bureau saying, 'I've got a major convention that wants this week,' and I said, 'We can't do it; we've got a major demolition going on.' "

All told, demolitions and other major construction work, such as eliminating walls and building a link between the existing center and the expansion, resulted in about a dozen conventions or trade shows' being rescheduled or canceled each of the past three years, Daidakis said.

Even before excavation of the first of 12,000 dump-truckloads of dirt, Daidakis looked elsewhere for inspiration, for ideas, for pitfalls to avoid.

With leaders of the Maryland Stadium Authority and the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, she visited centers in San Diego, Denver, Minneapolis and Orlando. She also convened a "users group" to hear the opinions of those who matter most -- potential customers, including meeting planners who book conventions, and contractors who set up trade shows.

Such research formed the basis for planning every bit of space, in detail. Before the architects drew it, Daidakis knew she wanted five football fields worth of virtually column-free exhibit space where an 18-wheeler could drive in and out and turn around with ease.

She knew she wanted underground truck docks, obscured from public view, with traffic able to enter one side and exit the other; a ballroom bigger than any in Maryland for formal affairs; food comparable to that of upscale restaurants and hotels; and exhibit space close to meeting rooms, to spare conventioneers long walks.

Daidakis got all of the above, on time and within budget, she said, with more than a little pride.

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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