Public officials assess dip in hotel bookings

Leadership void faulted in business-stay drought

BACVA looks for new chief

A strong leader in sales is needed, some saying

February 05, 2003|By June Arney and Bill Atkinson | June Arney and Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

The steep falloff in hotel nights booked by the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association makes critical the selection of a top-notch chief executive who can revive the floundering association, public officials and industry experts said.

The Sun reported last week that, halfway through its fiscal year, BACVA had met just 18 percent of its hotel room sales target - sharply behind last year's pace.

Disclosure of the lethargic bookings coincides with the start of the association's search to replace its president, Carroll R. Armstrong, who resigned under pressure after a three-month consultant evaluation of BACVA's operations. BACVA has refused to make the findings public.

"They've got to get one of the best [presidents] in the country, because that's how far BACVA has slipped back," said state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. "They've got to completely revise what they've been doing."

Even so, Schaefer, a former mayor of Baltimore and governor, said, "It will take three years to get anything going ... if you start right now."

John Davis, director of sales and marketing at Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, said it is time to "take a forward-looking approach."

"It is absolutely critical ... that the city find the right candidate for that job," Davis said.

Catherine E. Pugh, a city council member who sits on BACVA's board, said sweeping changes could be in order for BACVA.

"There are a whole range of things that we have got to examine," Pugh said. "Is our sales team strong enough? Is our marketing strategy firm and in place? I think this is an opportunity for us to examine all of those questions and look for the kind of person who can lead."

Pugh said BACVA will likely look for a president with a "strong sales background and a total understanding of where this industry is going."

Baltimore City Council members and industry experts said they were troubled by the sharp decline in BACVA's hotel bookings.

An internal sales report obtained by The Sun showed that BACVA booked 115,109 hotel nights between July 1 and Jan. 15. Its booking 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 corresponding period in fiscal 2002, the report shows.

BACVA officials have said that much of their convention business is booked in May and June, when associations and groups hold annual meetings and vote on future destinations.

"Clearly, the numbers are disturbing," said Helen L. Holton, a City Council member. "To what extent we are in position to turn things around, I don't know."

Mary Jo McCulloch, president of the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association and president of the Maryland Tourism Council, said the low hotel bookings "are of great concern not only to the hoteliers, but to the state and the city."

Davis said the Renaissance has had to rely more on its own marketing efforts than on BACVA's.

"The Marriott Renaissance has a long-term stake in the community," he said. "We will be here for the long haul. It is just: How hard is that battle going to be?"

Davis said the low bookings harm more than hotel owners. "The room nights translate into jobs, occupancy taxes and the well-being of the city at large," he said.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who appoints the BACVA board and whose chief of staff is its chairman, has refused to return phone calls to discuss BACVA since The Sun revealed in November the plans to force out Armstrong.

Baltimore City Council members said the consultant's report on BACVA should be made public because the association receives millions of dollars annually from the hotel tax and some state money.

The report 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 projected business.

Though BACVA officials initially had said the results would be public, the board reversed that position, choosing to keep the report under wraps.

"If government was created by and for the people and it is beginning to shut the people out, then what kind of government are you running?" Holton said. "Everyone keeps talking about an open and seamless government."

"Transparency is a good thing," added Kenneth N. Harris Sr., a City Council member. "When governments operate in secrecy, it creates suspicion."

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