As the search for a new leader for Baltimore's beleaguered convention bureau stretches into its fifth month, the city is at a competitive disadvantage and rapidly losing critical ground to competing cities, experts say.
"Every month that passes hurts the destination and hurts the hotel industry," said Speros A. Batistatos, owner of Destination Development Group, a Chicago-based convention and hospitality consulting company. "Baltimore starts to suffer from a lack of visibility in the marketplace."
The delay in finding permanent leadership could cost the city hotel room bookings and other visitor spending, he said. Competitors may swoop in with quick, too-good-to-pass-up offers to grab convention business that was only tentatively booked in Baltimore.
"I'd be all over what Baltimore is trying to sell. We'd be discounting room rates and meeting space. ... Whatever it took to book the business, we'd be doing it.
"Unfortunately, that fiscal impact may come 20 months down the road when the hotel inventory is dramatically lower than its competitors and when the convention center is dark," Batistatos said.
Leaders of the effort to find a new head of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association acknowledge there have been delays but say taking time to make the right choice is vital.
"It's taken longer than I predicted," said Catherine E. Pugh, co-chairwoman of BACVA's search committee and a City Council member. "We just really want to make sure we get a good match for Baltimore."
But Cameron Kane, president of Ed Kane's Water Taxis, and other small-business people dependent on tourist trade are impatient with the delay.
"We're in this limbo, and it's critical," she said. "I think there's no question that it will cost room nights."
Baltimore began its search after Carroll R. Armstrong was forced out as BACVA president and chief executive in February. Marshall Murdaugh, a consultant and veteran tourism strategist, currently serves as interim chief executive three days a week.
Armstrong left after a stinging outside review of BACVA's operation by consulting firm Performance Management Inc. of Stamford, Conn., which criticized him for mismanagement and for inflating hotel room night bookings. The convention business has continued to sag.
BACVA's bookings for hotel rooms in the first half of this fiscal year plunged 62 percent from a year earlier. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Convention Center's operating deficit is swelling and is expected to nearly double this fiscal year and continue to increase in fiscal 2004.
BACVA's consideration of a new leader has been delayed by the search committee's decision to expand the search.
In late April, Pugh said the BACVA search committee had narrowed 82 candidates to three finalists and hoped to announce their choice as soon as early May. But the panel decided to add a fourth finalist after inconsistencies in the employment history of one required additional background checking, she said.
BACVA has paid a search firm to conduct the background checks and verify references, she noted.
The mayor's tight schedule and the busy calendars of the candidates have also complicated the process, she said.
Mayor Martin O'Malley and members of the BACVA board have interviewed just one candidate. A second candidate should be scheduled to visit Baltimore in June, Pugh said.
Raquel Guillory, press secretary for the mayor, said yesterday, "The search process is something that will take time to ensure that the right person is chosen. In the meantime the agency is being run by someone with years of experience in the business and the agency continues to move forward."
Pugh declined to say when a new chief would be announced.
"I don't want to do any more predictions," she said. "My personal hope is that we'll be able to resolve all this in the next 30 days. I've been impressed with the selections we've made. But, it's not my decision alone."
Hospitality experts have said that the turmoil at BACVA may make it more difficult to sign a talented new leader - especially because other cities such as Dallas and San Antonio also have openings.
Increased scrutiny of convention bureaus by politicians and journalists in cities across the country could also discourage applicants.
"The profile of [convention and visitor bureau] head has been elevated over the last few years," said Michael Hughes, director of research for Trade Show Week magazine. "I would not be surprised if that is not making some potential candidates around the country hesitant about particular openings. A candidate will have to go in with the understanding that the spotlight will remain."
Werner Kunz, managing director of the Harbor Court Hotel, agreed that the longer the search goes on, the greater the effect.