BACVA's ostrich act continues when it needs to straighten up

March 05, 2003|By JAY HANCOCK

ACONSULTANT, somebody said, takes your watch to tell you the time.

Leave it to the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association to spin new absurdity into the joke. BACVA has hired the consultant, handed over the watch and still doesn't know what time it is.

It doesn't want to know.

Do not be amazed by the fact that BACVA is conflicted about the highly negative report card it got a few weeks ago from Performance Management Inc., of Stamford, Conn. Reputations and egos are at stake.

Be amazed, be very amazed, at BACVA's attempt to suppress the consultant's findings.

Financed by millions in taxpayer dollars, the association refuses to show the full report to the public that paid for it, or to some of its directors. The association wouldn't even give the report to its own committee that is searching for a replacement for boss Carroll R. Armstrong, a bit of craven knuckleheadedness that has prompted various apt navigation similes.

"Like trying to drive a car with blinders on," one executive-search pro told The Sun last month. "Like trying to reach a destination without a road map," said a hospitality adviser.

Like relaunching the space shuttle without finding what went wrong with Columbia.

A key issue in the report is the quality of administration, presumably including Armstrong, who resigned in January. The summary given to reporters names no names but implies that BACVA was managed by fence posts.

Here is a list of areas in which BACVA was found lacking: long-term planning; short-term planning; goal-setting; reporting, evaluation and accountability of employees; internal communications; accounting; external communications; decision-making; allocation of resources; employee recruiting and retention; coordination between departments; and staff development.

And overall leadership.

Oh yeah, and attracting conventions, BACVA's main job.

Of course, no organization is devoid of good points, and in fairness this column should note that BACVA's offices are very tastefully decorated. Maybe they have good coffee, too.

(Kidding. The Performance Management study had good things to say about customer-service reps and said the association's marketing program is "creative and competent." And the coffee probably isn't that great.)

In a chart of BACVA's weaknesses, all six items flagged by the consultants had to do with leadership. Perhaps the committee charged with finding the next manager to manage BACVA should be able to learn about the management problems that need fixing.

The consultant's study was precipitated by a growing gap between the number of conventions and trade shows BACVA said it could attract and the number it attracted.

There are good excuses for the gap, including the bum economy, competition from other towns and the drop in travel business after the 2001 terrorist attacks. There is also the less-good but still plausible excuse that Baltimore lacks a huge "convention headquarters" hotel nearby.

But there is no excuse for the internal chaos that the study exposed. Lord help any organization subject to a fishing expedition by an expert looking for problems. Even so, the BACVA study, done by BACVA's hand-picked consultant, hints at greater-than-normal dysfunction and large risks for the public's $151 million investment in a convention center expansion.

The expansion was supposed to launch Baltimore into the next league of convention and trade show business. Instead, Baltimore is attracting fewer meeting participants than it did with a much smaller facility in the early 1990s.

The problem has been brushed aside by public officials because so far there has been no associated fiscal crisis. Interest on the convention center's bonds, generated by hotel taxes, continues to be paid; their price seems in line with that of other municipal bonds.

But the convention center's empty halls represent another kind of economic drag, a huge missed opportunity for Baltimore. Each week the center is not full represents thousands of meals uneaten, thousands of hotel rooms unoccupied, thousands of potential Baltimore boosters left ignorant of the city's charms.

Last fall BACVA thought it could ignore the obvious and procrastinate by hiring a consultant. Now the consultant has made the previously obvious presently glaring, but the ostrich act continues.

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