Bus-tour group drives high-speed convention

Marketplace offers chance to promote state's attractions

January 30, 2001|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

This is the week that Baltimore entertains the American Bus Marketplace, pairing tour operators and other members of the travel industry in precisely timed seven-minute encounters.

There will be more than 60,000 of the mini-meetings at the Baltimore Convention Center by week's end, conversations expected to generate $32 million in transactions for the tourism industry nationwide.

"This is our biggest Marketplace ever," said Michele Janis, a spokesman for the American Bus Marketplace. "Not everyone comes in by airplane. And the ones who come by coach are really here to stop and look and really explore the destinations."

Tourism officials in Maryland have prepared for three years for this matchmaking event, which has attracted about 2,000 people from the United States and Canada.

"In terms of impact on the state, the American Bus Marketplace has the potential of bringing in millions of dollars in business," said Mary Jo McCulloch, president of the Maryland Tourism Council and the Maryland Hotel and Motel Association.

"Typically, what they're bringing in is new business and new money. ... You don't often have the opportunity to show your state off to that number of potential clients in one place at one time."

The American Bus Association, which sponsors Marketplace, estimates that a motor coach load of passengers spends $5,000 to $7,500 on meals, lodging, souvenirs, fees, taxes and other items for an overnight visit. An estimated 860 million passengers travel by motor coach each year.

Host cities are told by Marketplace officials that they can expect at least a 10 percent increase in their group tour business.

Although Frances H. Smiley couldn't provide statistics, the assistant director of the Bureau of Tourism and Travel for Alabama said group tour business has greatly improved in that state since Birmingham played host to the previous Marketplace in December 1999. More than 44,000 mini-meetings were held during that event.

"We've had a tremendous increase in the number of operators who've come and brought business to our state," she said. "We've definitely had coaches that have made Alabama a destination as a result of this convention. It has created such an awareness of our state and who we are that I don't know if we could put a dollar amount on it."

The one-on-one meetings at the Convention Center yesterday were intense.

Tour operators, called buyers, sometimes spewed questions as tourism officials and other members of the travel industry tried to sell themselves against a ticking clock.

Buyers sat at tables set up for visits from the sellers. A chime warned buyers and sellers that they had two minutes remaining before the next interview. Once the final chime sounded, it looked like a game of musical chairs as sellers arrived, often breathless, for their next appointment.

Buyers and sellers came from across the country and Canada.

In one of her seven-minute sessions, Smiley talked with a representative of Chinese Professional Tour and Travel of New York City.

"I'm putting together a civil rights, Civil War tour for them," she said. "That came up in the last seven minutes."

Among the buyers and sellers were Maryland tour operators trying to line up itineraries and members of the state's tourism industry pitching Maryland as a destination.

Eugene "Doc" Householder, executive director of the Belmont County Tourism Council in St. Clairsville, Ohio, stopped by to try to talk Eyre Tour & Travel Ltd. of Glenelg into considering tours that included a nearby Victorian mansion, a doll museum, an active Quaker meeting house and the Ohio pumpkin festival, all close to Interstate 70.

Kathryn A. Johnson, a group tour operator with the West Virginia Division of Tourism, stopped by the Eyre table to sell her state.

"They want something to do in the evening," Ellen Hill-Kilby, a tour planner for Eyre, said of her customers.

Johnson mentioned a ghost tour through Victorian homes.

"That's something different you don't expect, especially in Wheeling," she said.

Larry P. Schiller, president of Drake Tours and Cruises Inc. of Fresno, Calif., wants to bring a tour to Western Maryland next spring.

He chatted with Lisa L. Hansen, director of tourism development for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, about railroad museums, impressionist paintings and the National Aquarium until the warning chimes sounded. Then Schiller didn't mince words.

"We have one minute," he said as time ran short. "Hotels. I'd like to be close to the Inner Harbor. I want the upscale hotels near the Inner Harbor."

Hansen assured him that he would get the information he needed.

Minutes later, Hansen sat opposite Richard Buck, president of AgriTours Canada Inc. of Guelph, Ontario.

"I've actually started looking at Baltimore as being a hub for me," Buck told her. "I've never been here before. Now I'm impressed."

Quickly, Hansen launched into her sales pitch for her first-time visitor: "Right down the street from the Marriott where you're staying is the Inner Harbor. That's our crown jewel."

When she asked how many tours he was talking About, he said, "It's one coach now. If it works, there will be more."

Paula Hapeman, sales manager at Martz Group, a tour company from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., said her company already brings buses to Baltimore from May through October.

"We send day trips to Baltimore, and I'll be honest with you," Hapeman said, "I never realized how much more there is to do here. It's multi-day. ... I'm starting on 2002. I want to start booking now, especially for overnight."

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