BACVA behind on hotel bookings

After 6 months, bureau at 18% of annual goal

`Disturbing number,' official says

February 01, 2003|By June Arney and Bill Atkinson | June Arney and Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

Halfway through its fiscal year, the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association has met just 18 percent of its hotel booking goal - sharply behind last year's pace, according to an internal sales update.

BACVA, which is charged with bringing conventions and tourists to Baltimore, booked 115,109 hotel nights from July 1 to Jan. 15. Its goal for the year is 640,000 nights.

For the six full months through December, its sales staff booked 85,404 hotel nights, 62 percent lower than the 224,517 booked during the same period in fiscal 2002, the report shows.

"Eighteen percent? Wow!" said Marshall E. Murdaugh, BACVA's interim head, who had not seen the report, a regular update. "That would be a disturbing number. I would say six months into the year, if those were the numbers, there would be cause for concern."

The dismal bookings come during a turbulent period for BACVA. Nine days ago its president and chief executive for seven years, Carroll R. Armstrong, announced he would step down effective today. Armstrong had been under pressure after a stinging three-month evaluation of BACVA operations conducted by a private consulting firm and overseen by Murdaugh.

Though BACVA had initially said the results would be public, the board reversed that position, voting to keep the report under wraps - a decision that has drawn criticism from industry and public officials, including Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. The recently completed evaluation was ordered after The Sun published articles in June that showed that the $151 million Baltimore Convention Center expansion, which opened in 1997, had failed to deliver the business projected.

At the same time, the city is pursuing a long-sought headquarters hotel next to the convention center to boost the center's flagging performance. The hotel would require a substantial public subsidy, city officials have said.

Should BACVA fail to exceed the 631,360 nights booked in the last fiscal year, it would be the first downturn in at least eight years.

BACVA spokeswoman Nancy Hinds said the sales numbers report is an "internal document, just to know where we are."

"It's used for the sales staff. We make the numbers public at the end of the year, and they're audited," Hinds said.

She said that the bulk of business is booked in May and June when associations and groups hold annual meetings and vote on destinations for future meetings. BACVA's biggest sales month in the last fiscal year was June, when 193,499 hotel nights were booked, followed by March's 76,424, according to the report.

"It's just like a football game," Hinds said. "You may be down in the first quarter, you may be down in the second quarter, but what matters is the score at the end of the game."

Industry experts expressed surprise at BACVA's weak numbers but noted that the convention and tourism industry is struggling amid a lackluster economy and intense competition.

"Ouch," said Curtis Love, assistant professor of the Tourism & Convention Administration Department at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. But, he added, "Anybody who picks up a magazine can see that we [the industry] are in the toilet."

Allison Adams, chairwoman of the Hospitality & Tourism Management Department at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., said the low sales numbers raised questions about BACVA's effectiveness.

"Anytime you are making 18 percent of your overall goal, you are probably not doing a good job," she said.

Heywood T. Sanders, chairman of the department of public administration at the University of Texas in San Antonio and a convention industry expert, said the results are "partly a commentary on the CVB [convention and visitors bureau]."

"It's also a wake-up call to the city because they're not pursuing a strategy that is working," Sanders said.

Many convention and visitors bureaus across the country are taking a hard look at their staffs and strategies. The bureaus are under pressure because tourists aren't traveling as they did before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, businesses aren't spending as much on meetings and competition is ferocious, experts said.

"It is an incredibly competitive market place," said William A. Hanbury, president and chief executive of the Washington, D.C. Convention and Tourism Corp. "There are a lot more people on the playing field than ever before."

He said "second-tier" cities, such as Milwaukee and Kansas City, which previously weren't competitive, are aggressively going after business.

Melvin Tennant, president and chief executive of Charlotte Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc. in Charlotte, N.C., said he has seen bureaus in big cities cut rates and negotiate deals to attract more convention business. "With business being down, everybody is scrambling," Tennant said.

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