Sweeping study called essential to fixing center

Convention experts urge no-holds-barred inquiry

Mayor wants report by fall

Review of BACVA staff considered first priority

July 28, 2002|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

As officials rush to set parameters that will examine the performance of the Baltimore Convention Center, national experts warn that without a sweeping study, they'll probably fail to get at the root of the problems besetting the complex.

The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association board has authorized an evaluation of BACVA and the short- and long-term tourism environment, and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has said he wants the report in the fall.

The board took its action after The Sun published stories that showed a $151 million expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center has failed to attract the number of conventions and the attendance projected. The newspaper also reported that figures noted by the city on the economic impact of the complex are widely viewed as inflated.

Clarence T. Bishop, chairman of the BACVA board, declined to discuss the scope of the planned review. "This isn't the appropriate time in the BACVA board's work for media and press interviews," he said.

But national experts say the examination needs to be as broad and deep as possible in order to get a clear picture of strengths and weaknesses of the convention center.

"These things need to be evaluated holistically," said Charles H. Johnson, president of C.H. Johnson Consulting Inc. of Chicago. "It's all related."

The process, experts say, should begin at the top with a review of the BACVA staff, including Carroll R. Armstrong, BACVA's president and chief executive, as well as the board's composition.

"The guy who runs it has to wear many hats," said Jack Craver, a Lancaster, Pa., hotel consultant who has done work for the Valley Forge and Pennsylvania Dutch convention and visitor bureaus. "He has to deal with the many stakeholders of the city, also has to have a keen sense of marketing, of how they should be promoted and has to be able to build a really good marketing plan. He has to be able to command respect ... not someone who people say is the wrong person for the job."

Eugene Hosmer, an international consultant who coaches managers of convention centers, convention bureaus and hotels on how to win business, said the quality of the sales force pitching Baltimore is another key area to assess.

"Are they the right people to try to book the business?" he said. "Are these competent guys and gals who are selling? Do they know the business?"

Hosmer thinks Baltimore's Convention Center should have attained the results that were promised by supporters of the multimillion-dollar expanded center, which opened in April 1997 after tripling the exhibit space to 300,000 square feet.

"I would not have liked to hear we don't have enough hotel rooms or enough space in the convention center," he said.

The Sun reported that the Convention Center has not lived up to the projections of the 1993 feasibility study, which helped sell the expansion project. Instead of the 50 conventions a year that were projected, the city has attracted a high of 41 conventions in 1998 and a low of 26 two years ago. Combined attendance from trade shows and conventions - the two most critical areas - has never reached the 330,000 projected. Attendance has ranged from a low of 192,625 three years ago to a peak of 234,394 last fiscal year, 1,000 more than a decade earlier.

Armstrong has said consistently that the Convention Center needs a headquarters hotel adjacent or nearby that would allow convention delegates to be housed in one hotel. Such a project would almost certainly require public subsidies. He also has said that the city should consider expanding the Convention Center again to double its exhibit space, at an estimated cost of $250 million.

At a time when the meetings industry is not growing, cities across the country have built headquarters hotels and expanded their convention centers with lukewarm results.

In analyzing a convention bureau's performance, the experts say, it is important to study organizational structure.

BACVA books the conventions and trade shows, and the responsibility for the daily operation of the building falls to the Convention Center staff, of which Peggy Daidakis is executive director. The mayor appoints members to the BACVA board.

At least one expert thinks that it makes sense to bring BACVA and the Convention Center under a single umbrella to give the complex freedom to make deals that would help sell the center.

"I think they should be married, because then you have the best interest of the whole at stake," Craver said. "You should be able to make a deal. The CVB that books the business should have sway over the center. ... Then you have a ball team that can play ball for the whole city."

A complete examination of the Convention Center, experts said, will work only if BACVA acknowledges flaws in its system that may be costing the city business.

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