Snaring all that potential business would bring more than $80 million in direct spending to the city. The more realistic aim: Persuading a small fraction to come to Baltimore for a "site inspection" of the center, hotels and attractions, which could lead to a convention coming, which would generate spending many times what the Chicago trip costs.
The approach seems decidedly old-fashioned in this age of e-mail and voice mail, cellular phones and faxes, pagers and video conferencing. But the convention industry, perhaps more than ever before, puts a premium on being there, face-to-face.
"Because so much is at stake, all these convention bureaus go to the lengths they do to impress," says Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive of the Baltimore bureau. "The meeting planners have seen it all before, heard it all before. And they have to be confident that we can control things enough to make them look good, to make everything come off just as it should.
"We're not just selling a building and hotels and this name Baltimore. We're selling an experience, and we have to show them it'll be a good one. You can't do that on the phone."
Sunday evening, and no sign of the wind-up plastic crabs that walk sideways. Or the Orioles caps to remind Cubs fans looking out onto Wrigley Field about Baltimore's retro nod to old-fashioned ballparks. Or the sales kits filled with glossy images of downtown Baltimore, detailed floor plans of the convention center, maps showing hotel rooms and attractions.
This causes considerable distress for Ratcliffe, who's paid to pay attention to such details and suddenly sees the possibility of a year's planning for these crucial two days going awry.
"They should have been here by now. What happened? We need them." But the angst is short-lived. In a matter of minutes, somebody will call Baltimore, get a tracking number, locate the express package of goodies for meeting planners, and get assurance that it will indeed arrive in time for the first appointments Monday morning.
Crisis averted, bringing palpable relief to the sales team members.
Where's the hotel?
On the eve of the calls, they sit around a dining room table in a hotel suite high above the turquoise waters of the Chicago River. The ensuing strategy session is brief and to the point. Ratcliffe leads a quick review of key selling points, particularly completion of the $151 million convention center project, tripling its size.
Then there's the much dicier matter of the city's choice of a hotel to serve conventioneers -- a mile from the convention center, about a mile too far to most meeting planners.
Invariably, whether the city has or plans a headquarters hotel connected to the center comes up in the first few minutes of sales calls. The representatives explain that Baltimore has awarded exclusive negotiating rights to a team led by baking mogul John Paterakis to build a 750-room hotel on the harbor. But they add that a second hotel, proposed by Orioles principal owner Peter G. Angelos, could bring 1,000 rooms directly connected to the center.
Between sales meetings, Ratcliffe says what she does not say to the meeting planners: "Our jobs would be a whole lot easier if we knew we were getting a convention headquarters hotel."
Indeed, most of the conventions with more than 3,000 expected seek at least a 1,000-room headquarters hotel, preferably connected to the center, as many of Baltimore's competitors already have or are planning.
Stressing strengths, the sales teams tout the newly expanded convention center, the airport's location minutes from downtown, comparatively cheap airfares since Southwest Airlines' arrival, competitive hotel rates, a cluster of attractions in an eminently walkable downtown, Oriole Park, the new football stadium rising next door, the "second renaissance" bringing a host of new attractions.
After the obligatory small talk and five-minute pitch, most of the meeting planners fire away questions. The Baltimore sales team leaves most sales calls not with anything resembling commitments, but with more questions to answer, in formal proposals, written responses to requests or follow-up calls and visits.
But whatever the immediate outcome, those paid to examine destinations in excruciating detail and, perhaps more important, negotiate contracts, say a bureau's being there often makes all the difference.
Althea H. Jenkins, executive director of the 11,000-member Association of College & Research Libraries based here, knows the rooftop across from Wrigley well. She's been here at least three times, courtesy of convention bureaus, and is mindful of the little things on each visit.