More hotels, attractions draw visitors

Economic gains for Md. noted in increased spending , longer stays


January 24, 1999|By June Arney | June Arney,Sun Staff

The opening of a string of new attractions has state tourism officials hoping to make a leap toward long-held goals of getting visitors to spend time and money.

Looking only as far as the Inner Harbor, last year was studded with successes, including the opening of the world's first ESPN Zone, a Barnes & Noble bookstore, a Planet Hollywood and Port Discovery. Despite the major accomplishments, challenges lie ahead.

"We do need to have a far better understanding across the state that tourism is a legitimate economic development tool in this state," said George Williams, Maryland's director of tourism. "We need people to understand the benefits derived from having visitors come to the state to spend money while demanding very little of our infrastructure."

Perennial goals remain at the top of his list -- boosting visitor spending and finding ways to extend their visits, Williams said.

Visitors to Maryland spend $115 a day per household -- $13 less than the national average. In 1997, the last year for which figures are available, that is equivalent to more than $280 million tourist dollars.

Length of stay also lags behind the national average. Nationwide, the average trip lasts more than three days, while the average visitor to Maryland spends 2.4 days here.

One of the highlights statewide has been the Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort in Cumberland, which opened in April. The project created a destination in the western part of the state that received relatively few visits before the lodge and its Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course were constructed.

Occupancy of the 220 lodge rooms was 49 percent in June, 50 percent in July, 70 percent in August and exceeded 70 percent in September, October and November. The lodge sold out for New Year's.

By its first anniversary, more than 80,000 guests will have stayed there, said Thomas A. Ruhs, vice president and general manager of the lodge. A healthy increase in business is expected during the second year, since all 18 holes of the golf course will be open by early spring, he said.

"Rocky Gap is fulfilling one of our missions in drawing people to Western Maryland who have never ventured this far west before," Ruhs said.

The recent opening of Prime Outlets Hagerstown underscores how big a draw shopping can be. In the first month that Prime Outlets was open, room tax revenues in Washington County grew by more than 20 percent over that same period in the previous year, with only a 2 percent or 3 percent increase in room stock, Williams said.

"It says not only do visitors want to shop when they go to a destination, but shopping with a unique presentation will attract visitors," he said. "Retail is finally recognizing that they are part of tourism."

Ocean City is on the way to completing a $3.5 million boardwalk face lift that officials believe will link the resort's future with its past and serve as a catalyst for upgrading downtown.

The city, which averaged about 4 million summer visitors in recent years, has been able to extend its traditional season and promote its image as a family resort by sponsoring events including wine festivals, car shows and polka competitions.

Unseasonably warm weather helped lure about 83,000 visitors each weekend in November, with December nearly as busy.

Selling Baltimore is much easier than it was even five years ago, Williams said. "Virtually every convention we've had in the city in the past six months has had record-breaking attendance," he said.

Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association since 1996, said he is pleased with the progress his group has made in boosting the 1997 and 1998 numbers. Because large conventions book so far in advance, he said, it is hard to turn numbers around immediately even with ardent marketing efforts.

"I feel confident that we can bring 1999 at least up to the level of 1997 and 1998," Armstrong said. "It takes a lot more work because there are a lot more smaller groups, but we knew that was the only recourse we had. The bigger groups had gone."

Werner Kunz, managing director of Harbor Court Hotel, said the numbers of convention-goers are a concern, even though Harbor Court caters to small groups of about 50, typically from the medical profession or investment banking.

"The city barometer drives the entire city, and what the city does will reflect on Harbor Court," said Kunz, adding that his hotel is the last to sell because of its higher prices. "I'm concerned, but that just gets me more excited about doing a better job ourselves."

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