Sticky fingers love what he publishes

Guide war? A huge competitor is lying in wait as Ron Szpatura prepares to expand his Landmark Marketing Group.

July 14, 2000|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Ron Szpatura publishes the kind of books he expects to be stolen - at the rate of about 16,000 a year. And that's not a bad thing in his business.

Szpatura, 52, is founder and president of the Landmark Marketing Group, creator of those glossy guides brimming with restaurant and hotel ads that travelers find in hotel rooms - and frequently take along as souvenirs.

For 13 years, the Baltimore native has published "Landmarks of the Chesapeake Bay," a visitor guide focused on the bay region, filled with larger-than-life photographs of crab cakes, mouth-watering filet mignon and romantic bay sunsets. He sells advertising and provides the books to real estate agents and chambers of commerce. He also puts the books in hotels for free, replacing them as they disappear.

He prints 20,000 copies to keep 4,000 rooms supplied, estimating that an average of three to 12 will get swiped per room, per year.

One Pennsylvania caller to an Annapolis charter boat company started the conversation by apologizing for taking the book from an Annapolis hotel, then booked a $25,000 wedding, Szpatura said.

After taking a few years to diversify within market, through videos and a Web site equipped with an elaborate search engine that locates restaurants, hotels and other businesses, Szpatura has decided to expand.

He plans to move into Baltimore, Washington and Ocean City, and eventually to take on North and South Carolina and the Georgia coast. He also intends to head into Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.

But that move means that Szpatura will square off against industry giant, Guest Informant, a company founded in 1937 and which operates in 35 major markets and in more than 2,000 hotels across the country. And California-based Guest Informant has been in Baltimore and Washington for years.

"Part of the roll-out plan is we'll go where the best opportunity is first," Szpatura said. "We'll go where we can form the strategic alliances most quickly. Without a crystal ball, who knows where we'll be in 2003."

A veteran salesman, Szpatura has considered places as exotic as Dubai, in the northeastern United Arab Emirates, which has an estimated 9,000 hotel rooms ranging in cost from $300 to $18,000 a day, he said. He's also thought about Seoul, South Korea, and Bermuda. In some cases, Szpatura knows, he might be better off to purchase - or do joint ventures with - competitors.

Kevin O'Connor, publisher of Guest Informant in Baltimore, knew nothing of Szpatura's plans to come to town. Guest Informant is in 33 hotels in Baltimore and 19 in Greater Annapolis and on the Eastern Shore, O'Connor said.

Although Guest Informant has had a difficult time penetrating the Annapolis market, Szpatura will find that the same is true for him in Baltimore, O'Connor said. "We're going to clean his clock," he said.

Washington will be an even greater challenge, because it's so competitive, O'Connor said. He said Szpatura might have better success in Ocean City because of his established loyalty on the Eastern Shore.

One advantage for Szpatura is that he can offer trades and discounts and, in some cases, accommodate smaller ads than Guest Informant can, O'Connor said.

Szpatura got his idea for the Landmarks book after he and a partner sold to Rand McNally their Baltimore-based map company called Professional Marketing Associates Inc., which had $1 million in sales.

He had moved from Baltimore to Annapolis in 1985 and joined what was then the Tourism Council of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Inc. where he learned that hoteliers needed a guidebook for their guest rooms.

"When I talked to enough of the hotels and saw what the models in other cities looked like, I saw we had a strong niche," Szpatura said.

The person who offered the most encouragement was Herman E. Schieke Jr., a tourism specialist for Calvert County, who at the time worked in Annapolis for a company that owned several hotels.

"We had nothing in the hotel room to be visitor-friendly to our guest," Schieke said. "Partly it was selfish. People wouldn't be coming down to bother the desk clerk as much. They could do the job they were supposed to do instead of being little tour guides."

In 1988, his first year of business, Szpatura said, he put books in 10 hotels and had $100,000 in revenue. After that first year, 90 percent of his advertisers renewed, a number typically 25 percent or 30 percent with most media, he said.

His three-year business plan projects expansion into 10 cities and revenue of $5 million, he said.

As supportive as Schieke has been, he recognizes that Szpatura's goals are ambitious.

"I think it's going to be rough going against Guest Informant in Washington," he said. "It's been in Washington for years. I do think in some of the areas like a North Carolina ... they'd be crying for this."

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