City goes after smaller conventions

Drop in business travel prompts shift in focus

October 25, 2002|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association will focus on attracting small groups and leisure travelers over the next 18 months as the city's hospitality industry copes with a downturn in business travel, BACVA officials said yesterday.

The association will work to lure smaller regional, association and corporate meetings within a five- to six-hour driving distance that haven't committed themselves to sites for next year through 2005, BACVA officials said. The efforts will include television advertisements and marketing efforts in other major cities.

"This is like war ... and it's serious," Carroll R. Armstrong, BACVA's president and chief executive officer, told a gathering at the Walters Art Museum of 230 people who work in the city's hospitality and tourism industry, as the association made its annual presentation of its marketing plan to members.

BACVA is also heavily promoting "Vivat St. Petersburg" - an arts and cultural celebration next year of the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg, Russia, which will be held in Baltimore from Feb. 13 to March 2.

Baltimore's hospitality industry rebounded more quickly than those of other major cities after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 last year, BACVA officials told the gathering. But a weak economy, uncertainty over a possible war with Iraq and a slow comeback for corporate travel are among the key factors that will keep pressure on the city's convention and hospitality industries, they said.

Competition will stiffen with convention centers - all bigger than Baltimore's - set to open in Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Boston in the next three years, Armstrong said.

The city's Convention Center business has failed to meet expectations since a $151 million expansion in 1997. The city had hoped that the center would attract 50 conventions a year by 2000, but it has fallen far short, with a high of 41 in 1998 and a low of 26 two years ago.

BACVA hired Performance Management Inc. of Stamford, Conn., to conduct the association's first top-to-bottom evaluation. That report is expected Dec. 9.

More cities are chasing smaller market segments that they might not have pursued as much in the past, said Curtis Love, associate professor in the tourism and convention department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"Corporate customers have always been the bread and butter for a lot of these cities," Love said.

Attracting smaller meetings and associations "would definitely put a Band-Aid on the wound, but I don't think you'd see a lot of immediate turnaround," Love said. "But [BACVA is] exactly right on what they should be doing."

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