Maryland hopes array of programs brings new visitors

Diversity: Sports, culture and nature are the focus of the state's efforts.


January 23, 2000|By June Arney | June Arney,Sun Staff

In the coming months, Maryland's tourism industry will launch programs to appeal to travelers interested in sports, culture and nature, unveil a five-year strategic plan, and polish its customer service -- all designed to make sure that more people visit the state in 2000 and stay longer.

"I think it's going to be a banner year," said George Williams, the state's tourism director. "We're poised -- with the economy as it is, consumer optimism the way it is -- for an exciting year, another record-breaker."

From one side of the state to the other, last year was robust for the industry.

Ocean City had a record summer.

Hagerstown and Frederick also boasted good years, with Hagerstown showing 18 to 20 percent growth in its hotel room taxes.

In Baltimore, the numbers of overnight business and leisure travelers grew by 11 percent each.

From 1997 to 1998, the number of visitors in Maryland rose 4.2 percent, outpacing the national average of less than 1 percent, according to the Maryland Office of Tourism Development.

Nearly 20 million visitors to the state spent $6.5 billion in 1998 -- a number expected to rise to $7 billion when last year's figures are available.

(There is about an 18-month delay in the reporting of the numbers from the Travel Industry Association of America.)

Although the number of visitors to Maryland increased at a rate greater than the national average, those visitors to Maryland spent less than the national average.

Visitors to Maryland spend an average of $120 per day per household -- $14 less than the national average, according to TIA. That difference in spending from the national average translates to more than $308 million.

Length of stay also lags the national average.

Nationwide, the average trip lasts more than three days, while the average visitor to Maryland spends 2.3 days.

Making any significant change in how long people spend in the state will take five or six years, Williams said.

"We will continue to focus on extending the length of stay, because fundamentally those are the only ways we have of increasing revenue," he said. "We want to expose them to more opportunities to spend their money."

One target will be the emerging category of cultural tourism. To appeal to that market, the state is developing attractions to be packaged as Maryland's Civil War stories and to commemorate the War of 1812 and the National Road, U.S. 40., the first federally funded highway.

Work also is being done to identify the Eastern Shore birthplaces of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and of Harriet Tubman, who led more than 300 slaves to freedom.

This year for the first time, the state tourism office will put special effort into recruiting amateur sports events, such as Little League tournaments. Such events use local recreation and educational facilities, can boost restaurant and hotel business and also raise the region's visibility -- which may help in the state's bid to get the 2012 Olympic Games.

The state tourism office also has teamed up with specialists in the Department of Natural Resources to train vendors, guides and outfitters to promote the state's nature tourism attractions. About $150,000 will be spent on marketing nature tourism this fiscal year, Williams said.

Customer work force training also is a factor in how long visitors stay, and the state has begun programs that will train tourism employees to promote attractions other than the ones where they work.

But perhaps the most ambitious activity of the year is crafting a strategic plan to be released early this year, Williams said. "It will give us a road map that we hope will be uniformly accepted by the legislators, the industry and the administration, so hopefully budget and staff actions would follow that plan," Williams said. "We've got to have a unified vision."

One thing Williams already knows the plan will illustrate is that the state should spend more money on marketing Maryland. This fiscal year's marketing budget was $11.5 million, he said. But the budget should be closer to $20 million, comparable with neighboring states Virginia and Pennsylvania. And within five years, Maryland's marketing budget should be at $25 million, he said.

Mary Jo McCulloch, president of the Maryland Hotel and Motel Association, worries that adequate marketing money is not being pumped back into the industry from revenue generated.

"Hotel taxes are looked upon by county jurisdictions as monies that should just go back into the general fund," she said. "I'm particularly concerned about counties that collect significant amounts of taxes and put very little back into the promotion of the tourism product."

She cited Baltimore County's 8 percent tax rate. In 1998, $5.4 million was collected in hotel taxes, yet the county's tourism marketing budget is $162,000, she said.

"I think that's a very dangerous precedent," she said.

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