The eight racing sloops that will chase one another up the Atlantic seaboard into the Chesapeake Bay this week in the Volvo Ocean Race are expected to draw at least the audience that visited four years ago, bringing tens of millions of dollars in economic impact to the region -- even without a local boat in the race.
"I think we're going to have a great crowd," said Gregory H. Barnhill, president of Ocean Race Chesapeake Inc., the local organizers of the race's Baltimore/Annapolis stopover, and a managing director at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. "I feel that the intensity is higher than last time at this stage."
In 1997-1998, the Volvo Ocean Race Round the World, then called the Whitbread, included a boat named Chessie Racing -- a $7 million project financed by former T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. chief executive George Collins. This year, there is no local entry to heighten the interest.
"Certainly what happened last time, Chessie made magical, but those 350,000 people that came weren't all sailors," Lee Tawney, secretary of Ocean Race Chesapeake Inc., said of the Inner Harbor crowds. "We'd expect at least 350,000-plus. I'd like to think we could at least attract 400,000 to Baltimore."
In 1998, area schoolchildren tracked Chessie's every move around the globe, talking to its sailors via Internet and telephone, then meeting them once they came into port. Corporate leaders rallied behind the international sailboat race with the hometown contestant -- a fellow executive turned sailor.
"It made the presentation much more identifiable on a local basis," Barnhill said. "They mobilized people and got people interested and made the event successful."
After the boats left four years ago, race officials proclaimed the visit the best stopover in the event's history, leading to this return tour.
That puts added pressure on the local organizers to shine.
"Every day, it worries you," Tawney said. "But we can focus on the icing on the cake and the decoration this time. A good part of the nuts and bolts, we know."
Area's time in spotlight
The world will be watching Baltimore, Annapolis and Sandy Point as the yachts arrive from Miami on Wednesday or Thursday -- ending the sixth leg in a 31,700-nautical-mile odyssey that has occurred every four years since 1973-1974.
For the crews, it likely will mark the end of three sleepless nights of sailing during which they will eat and try to catch a nap -- constantly at the rail of the sailboat.
For the region, the visit offers the chance to bask in the spotlight of a premier sporting event.
"You cannot put a price tag on the promotional value of this international exposure," said David S. Iannucci, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. "The Volvo will have residual effects for literally decades in terms of the national and international image of the state of Maryland."
More corporate activity
Spinoff corporate conferences, meetings and high-powered parties are lined up over the 12 days the boats are here -- at least double the hospitality activities of 1998, according to Tawney. Top management of such companies as Heineken USA, British Air, SEB, which is Northern Europe's largest bank, and the Wilson sports brand, all will be here.
The team working to bring the Summer Olympics to the region in 2012 will have a booth at the Inner Harbor to promote the bid, where activities will include the chance for children to try on actual Olympic medals and have their pictures taken with Olympic athletes.
"This is a very high-profile international event, and our ability to flawlessly execute the stopover highlights to the world the capabilities of the region," said John Morton III, chairman of the Chesapeake Region 2012 Coalition and president of Bank of America's Mid-Atlantic Banking Group.
Washington-Baltimore is competing with Houston, New York and San Francisco to be named the U.S. candidate to enter the international competition for those 2012 Games.
Hotels filling up
Already, it's difficult to book a room in Baltimore for the days the boats are here, with some hotels sold out and many others 80 percent booked or more.
The boats are expected to arrive in the Inner Harbor on Wednesday or Thursday. They'll sail to Annapolis April 26 before leaving on April 28. The 12-day stay is expected to inject about $53 million in economic impact into the region.
"Ocean Race Chesapeake seems to have such a great organization," said Tom Clifford, a spokesman for the Volvo Group North America Inc. "They know not only what makes an event great, but what makes it a business success, because they think like businessmen."
Locally, Volvo's budget is $1.25 million -- derived from a combination of private and public sources.
Attractive to backers