BACVA's acting CEO gets set to launch big sales blitz

He seems unfazed by downward trend

February 15, 2003|By Bill Atkinson and June Arney | Bill Atkinson and June Arney,SUN STAFF

Marshall E. Murdaugh has seen it all before.

The 62-year-old consultant with salt-and-pepper hair has watched convention and visitors bureaus crumble under tough economic times, seen presidents fired and lucrative tourism business dry up.

So it's not surprising that he isn't frightened by his latest project -- reviving the troubled Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, which is responsible for filling the city's convention complex.

Murdaugh, in his second week as interim head of the association, is characteristically optimistic: "For the agency, the glass is more than half full," he says.

Already, he has launched a plan aimed at boosting the association's sagging record with a sales and marketing blitz to attract meetings and conventions to Baltimore.

The plan, designed to quickly generate sales, includes four components: three sales blitzes, a direct mail campaign, telemarketing and the hiring of an outside-sales firm to help bring in new business.

The goal is to persuade companies, over the next 18 months, to hold their meetings in Baltimore. In addition, Murdaugh wants to attract conventions here that haven't committed to a location through 2006.

"The hotels need that business, we need that infusion of dollars now," Murdaugh said in an interview at the association's downtown headquarters.

The marketing blitz is being launched in the hopes of reviving the beleaguered association, whose president and chief executive resigned under fire this month.

Carroll R. Armstrong had been under pressure in the wake of an evaluation of the association's operations. The evaluation, believed to have been critical, was conducted by a private consulting firm and overseen by Murdaugh.

In addition, the association's bookings for hotel rooms in the first half of this fiscal year have plunged 62 percent from a year ago, and its sales staff has met just 18 percent of its hotel booking goal for the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

"What can I say? The numbers ... stand for themselves," Murdaugh said. "Eighteen percent didn't look good. Yes, of course, it is a concern."

Murdaugh said he would do whatever he can to "shore up the convention and sales area."

"We just need to make some things work a bit better, particularly in the area of sales," he said.

The new effort, which runs through June, begins Tuesday with a "sales mission" to Washington and Northern Virginia. It teams up four of the association's convention sales people with representatives of 15 local hotels and attractions. The sales group will call on meeting planners and associations in the Washington area. Its goal is to meet 200 potential customers over the three days.

In March, the association will kick off a nine-week direct mail campaign targeting 1,000 new customers. It also will see meeting planners from the United Kingdom in Baltimore.

Later in the month, its convention sales group and representatives of local hotels will embark on a three-day "road show" in the Northeast to meet with about 40 pharmaceutical companies. They will promote Baltimore as a good place to hold conventions and trade shows.

In April, the association's sales group will travel to Michigan to drum up business from the automotive industry. The association will launch a two-day telemarketing blitz in May.

"We are trying to get quick turnaround business," said Murdaugh, who wears a black pinstriped suit, blue-and-white checked shirt, red tie and black sneakers.

Although he was named association's interim head two weeks ago, Murdaugh was hired in September to oversee the internal evaluation. His hiring was ordered after The Sun reported in June that the $151 million expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center had not lived up to its projections.

He declined to discuss the details of the report, which association officials initially said they would release.

Murdaugh is not new to the convention and tourism business. He was president and chief executive of the Virginia Tourism Office. He also headed convention bureaus in New York City; Atlantic City, N.J.; Memphis, Tenn., and Norfolk, Va.

Two years ago, he started his own consulting firm, Marshall Murdaugh Marketing in Richmond, Va.

Murdaugh calls himself the association's "caretaker," and says he has no interest in the job.

"I am kind of an old guy. I have seen the elephant, I have heard the owl," Murdaugh said.

He declined to reveal how much he is being paid for his expertise. "You will have to discuss that with the chairman," he said. "I am just being paid a fee to be here."

Besides trying to revive the association's flagging sales numbers, Murdaugh is assisting the search committee and working to "move the process so the board can select the new chief executive in 90 days," he said.

He will organize meetings, develop and place ads for the position, and review and confirm applicants' credentials, he said.

Murdaugh also has started gathering with senior staff members once a week for "plan, progress and problems" meetings.

Murdaugh acknowledged that the mood among association's employees could be better.

"I kept telling them, `You are fine, the issue is not about you, the issue is about process, it is about economic conditions, it is about market conditions,' " Murdaugh said.

He is optimistic that progress can be made despite the association's problems.

"I feel good about where this agency is going. I think I can help along the way," Murdaugh said.

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