Keeping visitors longer

Tourism: A proposed state-of-the-art visitors center is a key component in keeping visitors longer in Baltimore, tourism officials believe.

April 04, 1999|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

By year-end, the head of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association hopes to break ground on a $4 million, state-of-the-art visitors center designed to tackle a longtime goal of tourism officials -- getting people to stay longer.

"If we're going to be the first impression travelers have, that contact is extremely important, because it sets the tone for that entire experience," said Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of BACVA.

"The key goals are not only to provide quality service but to extend the stay and move people to attractions that don't currently have a presence in the Inner Harbor."

Vital to getting people to stay longer is making sure they know the range of attractions and activities, can easily obtain tickets to tourist spots and can reach their destinations, Armstrong said. It's an idea that seems to be paying off for other cities.

The plan for an updated visitors center in Baltimore is not new. One was to open in the Inner Harbor two years ago, but the project stalled when design and construction bids came in at $4.5 million -- well over the $3.6 million budget, Armstrong said.

Last week, the BACVA visitors center had to vacate its existing facility on Constellation Pier in the Inner Harbor, where 250,000 people visited annually, and move into temporary quarters in a trailer between Harborplace and the Maryland Science Center.

Armstrong believes that it is time for a new building to serve the estimated 15 million people who visit the Inner Harbor each year. In terms of economic impact, the most recent statistics available show that in 1997 visitors to Baltimore spent $2.7 billion.

The old project that Armstrong inherited when he took the BACVA job called for a 7,958-square-foot facility, with the state providing $1.6 million, the Rouse Co., $500,000, and the city $1.5 million.

"It's been sitting for so long that if we don't do it this year, I'm not sure it will even happen," Armstrong said.

At 16,000 square feet, Armstrong's proposed facility would be more than double the size of the first proposed center, with a first level of 10,250 square feet and a second floor of 5,830 square feet. Designed by Baltimore-based Design Collective Inc., the project features a large exhibition area for displays of Baltimore and the region, space for 14 booths where travel counselors could help visitors plan their stays, a gift shop, theater and police office.

The theater would show a film on Baltimore's history before a curtain dramatically opens onto a window looking out on the Inner Harbor.

The center may also include a large map of the city with lights that illuminate various attractions when buttons are pressed.

In planning the facility, Armstrong toured one in Charleston, S.C., where tourism is a $2.3 billion industry and 3 million people visit the city and surrounding counties annually.

Opened in a restored warehouse in 1992, the Charleston center had more than 800,000 visitors last year.

Charleston officials believe that their center -- equipped to sell special events tickets and tour guides and even to book same-day hotel reservations -- has helped extend the average length of visitors' stays from 2.5 nights to 3.

"We have worked with the hotels to get them to encourage people to make the visitors center their first stop," said Suzanne B. Wallace, director of visitor services for the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Because we explain all the things to do, we help them stay in the city longer, because they won't get frustrated. We won't lose them to Myrtle Beach or to Hilton Head."

Being able to extend stays would be good news for Maryland tourism officials long troubled by visits that lag behind the national average. Nationwide, the average trip lasts more than three days, while the average visitor to Maryland spends just 2.4 days here.

Also consistently below the national average is visitor spending. Maryland visitors spend $115 a day per household, or $13 less than the national average of $128 a day per household. That represented a loss of more than $280 million in 1997. The less-than-average spending is the case even though visitors to Maryland have an annual household income that is $3,000 more than the average.

To help foot the bill for the proposed Baltimore center, Armstrong hopes to enlist corporate sponsors, as has been done successfully around the country.

Armstrong would like to find a suitable sponsor willing to pay $7 million over 10 years in exchange for naming the center after the company -- an idea well established with sports stadiums, but unique among visitors centers.

Armstrong has hired a Canadian agency called Performance Sponsorship Group to package and sell naming rights. It reports having met with about 25 local and national corporations, many of which have expressed interest.

Another sponsorship possibility is the naming of the 1,200-square-foot theater.

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