"People in the business have to pay very close attention to how VTC they treat you, how the bureau treats you on these visits because it's indicative of how they treat you when you get there," she says. "Say, you come here, and nobody greets you, you wonder what you're going to get in that city when you send thousands of people there. Will they just forget you there too?"
Stay in touch
Joyce Paschall, a meeting planner with the Sherwood Group Inc., which scouts convention sites for 22 associations, worries if she doesn't hear from cities her clients might consider.
"This is what keeps us informed about who is out there and who is ready," she says. "If a city loses that visibility with the planners, then we figure there's little being demonstrated that shows this city has interest and capacity for convention business."
On both sides of the conference room tables, everybody knows what it takes, and it is anything but a glamorous party life.
The yearlong planning for this sales blitz -- Baltimore normally does a few a year, but may increase that number -- entails sorting through a 2-foot stack of industry reports, to winnow about 300 conventions down to those that will be targeted.
Many organizations plan the exact dates for years to come, and often rotate geographically, so availability of the center eliminates some immediately.
Who's met where and when for the past several years and what plans do they have for the next five? How many have attended? Is the gathering growing or shrinking? Big spenders or low-ballers not worth the effort? How much space is needed, and can the event fit in the Baltimore center or a hotel? How many hotel rooms are needed, and are headquarter hotel requirements specified? Free suites, hotel rebates to cover convention center costs? How long will it take to move them in and move out of the center?
And that's all before requesting a half-hour sales meeting.
The oh-so-decorous selling belies the brutally competitive nature the industry and, in Baltimore's case, desperation to fill a woefully underbooked center. After years of scrimping on a third to half of what competitors spent to lure visitors, bookings for the Baltimore Convention Center drop off sharply by 1999 and 2000. Citywide conventions, those filling at least 900 hotel rooms on peak nights, number 41 this year. But as of December, the convention bureau says, 17 major conventions have been booked for 1999, 15 for 2000, 14 for 2001.
The drop-off in bookings raises serious questions about the expanded center's ability to live up to its promised payoff: $340 million a year direct-spending by conventioneers, generating $30 million in annual tax revenue and 8,000 jobs.
Marketing budgets elsewhere have grown as competition has intensified, with dozens of cities building new convention centers or undertaking major expansions. Centers have tripled to about 400 since 1980, leading some experts to predict a shakeout and costly failures.
Only now is Baltimore beginning to narrow the gap, with a state emergency measure doubling convention bureau spending to about $6 million last year and a new law maintaining the level, mostly through city hotel tax proceeds. That should enable the ++ bureau to mount much more aggressive advertising and direct-mail campaigns, attend more trade shows and substantially boost its travel budget.
Still, whatever's spent, on the next sales pitch and the next and all those that follow, almost all the courting will go unrequited, at first, at least. Ultimately, filling the convention center will depend not so much on schmoozing and partying but on diligence.
"It's a nonstop process, it never ends, really," Ratcliffe says. "Every city is out there doing this, and we've been trying to do it on a shoestring for a long time.
"Selling is selling. Whether you're selling encyclopedias or sewing machines or destinations, you have to make them aware of the product. And until now, we haven't been able to go all out doing the way we needed to and the way everybody else has."
Pub Date: 5/25/97