The wooing begins as new center opens Expansion: The new, enlarged Baltimore Convention Center debuted last night with a fete for some important guests: meeting planners who might book business for the facility.

September 07, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

The sales pitch masquerading as a weekend-long party began in earnest last night as the long-awaited Baltimore Convention Center expansion debuted before the most important critics of all: meeting planners who book hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of business nationwide.

Hoping to wow them, woo them and ultimately win their business, the city welcomed more than 100 of the planners and their guests for a weekend of wining and dining. They'll be treated to luxury hotel rooms, a game at Oriole Park tonight, a Fells Point pub crawl, golf, tours and admissions to downtown attractions.

At an invitation-only fete in the center expansion building last night, dancers on skates zipped through an underground sea of darkness just before light flooded the vast exhibit hall. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played. The ballroom beckoned with a gourmet dinner, and drinks from open bars flowed freely.

The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, the nonprofit agency charged with luring conventions and trade shows, the Maryland Stadium Authority and the state tourism office are footing the $200,000 bill for the weekend. The tab excludes freebies for the guests from hotels, restaurants and other attractions.

"We've got to have the razzle-dazzle because this building's concrete and steel, you know," said Carroll R. Armstrong, president of the convention bureau. "The whole idea is to give a good feeling about the Convention Center and what the center and Baltimore have to offer."

The dancers, the symphony, a light show, pop and jazz bands, and a detective finding "the center of it all" all contributed to a unique marketing opportunity that was designed to make lasting impressions, Armstrong said.

In the $83 billion-a-year meetings industry, the extravaganza is the rule. Eating, drinking and good times are essential ingredients in luring customers. Putting on a show for tens of thousands is routine. And with a nationwide trend in the construction of convention space, the competition has grown more intense than ever.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, James T. Brady, state economic development secretary, and William Jews, chairman of the convention bureau's governing board, welcomed the meeting professionals and touted the expanded center and its proximity to a growing menu of downtown attractions.

The building won rave reviews from guests.

Dawn Norman, a meeting planner for the San Diego-based International Association of Fitness Professionals, nibbled 4-inch shrimp in front of a movie-sized screen showing video montages of the center and the city.

She liked what she saw.

"I see convention centers all over the world, and I've never been fond of a 'box' inside a box,' " she said. "I want some style, and this place definitely has style and beauty."

Like other meeting planners, she also praised the center's location, amid a host of downtown attractions and hotels, and the new exhibit and meeting space.

Ed Greeley, who has booked numerous conventions for the 110,000-member American Institute of Physics, liked the open, airy feel of the place.

Last night's opening concluded three years of work that began with convention bureau leaders' repeated arguments that Baltimore would lose millions of dollars' worth of business each year to competitors boasting bigger, better centers.

With completion of renovations to the original center next April, Baltimore's expansion will increase total space to 1.2 million square feet, and exhibit space to 300,000 square feet. That will enable the center to compete for about 85 percent of the nation's conventions and trade shows, up from about two-thirds, and to have more than one event simultaneously.

Projections suggest that convention-related spending eventually will total $340 million a year, generating $30 million in annual city and state tax revenues, about 8,000 jobs, other downtown development and, possibly, a major new downtown hotel.

But after years of being outspent and outdone by competitors in other marketing centers, Baltimore's advance bookings fall far short of projections. The expanded Convention Center faces a difficult struggle if it's ever to come close to its promised payoffs.

See for yourself

The expanded Baltimore Convention Center will have an open house for the public from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. tomorrow.

Pub Date: 9/07/96

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