Bus convention promises to be boon Economic benefit seen lasting for years after Marketplace in 2001


October 25, 1998|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

When 2,000 people in the tour bus industry roll into Baltimore and then fan out to explore the rest of the state for a few days in the year 2001, the immediate economic benefit is expected to exceed $10 million.

And the repercussions for increased travel-related business likely will be felt for years.

That's why the planning already has begun for welcoming the American Bus Association, which in August signed a contract to make Baltimore the site of its annual convention -- called the Marketplace.

Unlike typical conventions, the event pairs compatible buyers and sellers in seven-minute interviews so that cities, attractions, restaurants and hotels interested in entertaining tours can meet with bus and tour operators looking to work in their market.

Some 60,000 appointments typically occur in the span of a single Marketplace.

"It's a very productive way of doing business," said George Williams, state director of tourism. "It's virtually guaranteed business."

He expects that between $200 million and $300 million in transactions will be conducted by people attending the Marketplace from across the country between Jan. 28 and Feb. 2 of 2001. Of that, between $10 and $25 million should flow to Maryland specifically, he predicted. Baltimore last had the event in 1980.

Motorcoaching in America is estimated to be about a $3.5 billion industry, said Peter Pantuso, president of the ABA in Washington. About 403,000 bus trips were taken to Maryland in 1997, according to state officials. The National Aquarium alone recorded 164,224 visits under the category of group sales -- primarily people riding buses -- and another 214,135 visitors under the education category -- mostly school children -- according to its 1997 annual report. Those two categories made up 9.8 percent of the aquarium's $26 million in annual revenue.

"Baltimore will have 250 to 300 tour bus operators in the city who will have the chance to experience it and bring back busloads of people," Pantuso said. "Estimates have been that group travel and motorcoach travel increase by 10 percent after a Marketplace."

A busload of visitors spends an estimated $5,000 to $7,000 a day, Pantuso said.

The ABA represents about 700 bus and tour operators, 150 suppliers of equipment and 2,300 members of the travel industry, including restaurants, hotels and casinos. And because the ABA is viewed as one of the major tourism meetings of the year, playing host to the event can bring more travel-related business.

It worked for Pittsburgh, which was host to the ABA in 1995.

Since then, the city has entertained meetings of the National Tour Association and the Travel Industry Association of America, and officials are negotiating with other groups, Pantuso said. Pittsburgh also is courting the ABA to return.

But, the real benefits for Baltimore and Maryland may come from piggybacking on existing tours. "If Baltimore, through holding a Marketplace, can get people to think Baltimore and not just Washington, then you can get people to extend their stay," Pantuso said. "Get them to think, an hour up the road there's a whole other place to see."

Attracting the ABA is just one measure of the vitality of the state's tourism industry. There have been other recent signs that Maryland is making strides in the business.

The state's 1997 advertising and marketing campaign produced increase in the number of people requesting information and visiting Maryland within the next six months. Called the conversion rate, that percentage rose from 54 to 60.

"I attribute it to us being out there advertising in a consistent way for three years now," said Williams, the state tourism head. "This year is the highest conversion ever. I've talked to some of my counterparts, and few have had a conversion factor higher."

That increase occurred under the watch of the advertising firm W. B. Doner & Co., which chose not to bid on the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development contract again this year. Trahan, Burden & Charles Inc., of Baltimore, holds the current $35 million contract, which covers five years.

Trahan opted to retain for its campaign a familiar tag line, "So many things to do, so close together," which has been used for the past three years. They tested two other possible lines: "Maryland -- more than you can imagine," and "Maryland: America in miniature." But the existing line fared better with members of the public polled outside a state visitors' center last spring.

Maryland also has distinguished itself recently by growing at a faster pace than the rest of the nation in visitor volume, according to the annual report of the state office of tourism, which is based on numbers provided by TravelScope data. TravelScope is a national survey mailed to 240,000 households annually.

Visits to Maryland rose by 5.2 percent last year compared with a 3.2 percent increase for the nation.

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