Despite February's huge snowstorm, Baltimore's first citywide international arts festival had a modest impact on the local economy, luring new audiences to local cultural institutions and attracting some out-of-town visitors, its organizers said.
Precise attendance and economic figures are in scant supply, acknowledge administrators of Vivat! St. Petersburg, the 18-day arts smorgasbord that ran from Feb. 13 to March 3.
But they point to these signs of success: a small increase in demand for hotel rooms, a greater number of out-of-town guests at certain events and hundreds of thousands of telephone and Web site inquiries about the festival.
"We couldn't have done Vivat! at a more difficult time," said Dan Lincoln, senior vice president for marketing at the Baltimore Area Convention & Visitors Association, which publicized the events. "There was a historic, record-breaking snowfall. The economy was falling off the edge, and there was a pending war with Iraq."
From the beginning, Vivat! St. Petersburg was a risky proposition. The festival, which commemorated the Russian cultural capital's 300th anniversary, involved more than 60 galleries and performing groups. It represented the first time that the city's arts organizations, which historically have not worked well with each other (let alone with the hotel and restaurant industry) had undertaken such a large collaborative project.
Even before it began, the groups made a hefty investment. BACVA spent about $900,000 to publicize the festival in such pricey markets as New York and Philadelphia, and 20 of the larger arts institutions spent $3.5 million in programming costs.
Between Jan. 1 and March 31, 2003, BACVA received 247,399 Web site or telephone inquiries - an 87 percent increase over the 132,259 calls or Web site visits that the agency received during the same three months in 2002.
"In terms of visitor interest, that was a major coup," Lincoln said.
"We can't say that all of those calls were about Vivat!, but most were; there were no other major events happening in the city at that time. Visits to the Web sites peaked on the days that there were newspaper articles about Vivat! or that we ran ads."
Of course, a Web site inquiry is one thing, and an actual visit is quite another.
Demand for hotel rooms last February in Baltimore was up nearly 5 percent compared to the same month in 2002, according to Smith Travel Research, an organization that tracks hotel occupancy rates nationwide. During the same period, the demand for hotel rooms was relatively static in Washington and was down 6 percent in Philadelphia.
"We're bucking the trend," Lincoln said. "The fact is that we were able to bring business into Baltimore during one of our toughest months, and when other cities were losing business."
Vivat! organizers did not count attendance at the festival, partly because 40 of the 97 events were free.
But according to a post-festival survey conducted by Joan Davidson, Vivat!'s executive director, 11 percent of the participating arts groups said their events sold out. Of those who said their audience fell below projections, many blamed the 28 inches of snow that began falling the day after the festival opened.
For instance, the BMA's exhibit of costume drawings for the Ballet Russe drew 5,800 visitors during the three festival weeks, a 34 percent decline from the 7,800 visitors who flocked to the J.M.W. Turner exhibit in February 2002.
"We were closed to the public for two days [because of the blizzard] and even after we opened, we had parking challenges, so we lost some momentum," said Anne Mannix, museum spokeswoman. "In spite of that, I think we did really well."
In addition, 81 percent of the participating arts groups reported a sizable increase in first-time visitors to their galleries or performances, and 66 percent saw a jump in out-of-town customers.
For example, the Walters Art Museum typically draws about 30 percent of its patrons from outside Baltimore. For its Vivat!-themed exhibit of Faberge miniatures, 44 percent of the museum's 5,000 visitors came from other cities.
"Although there was some initial skepticism that Vivat! could be a tourist draw, I talked to two couples who specifically had come to Baltimore after seeing the Vivat! ad in the New York Times," said Ann Wilson, the Walters' director of marketing and communications.
Smaller groups benefited, as well. Henry Holth, executive director of the Ballet Theatre of Maryland, was cheered when the troupe sold 82 percent of the seats available (or 590 tickets) for its two performances.
Of that audience, 20 percent were from out of state. "I cannot imagine that our customers normally would be from Tennessee, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Puerto Rico," he said.
Holth was particularly enthusiastic about the 30 percent of that audience who hailed from Baltimore - a short drive from the troupe's home base of Annapolis. "I hope they'll come see us again," he said.
Organizers say they are contemplating doing another themed arts festival, perhaps in two or three years. As Davidson put it: "There are no definite plans yet, but everyone's talking about `the next Vivat!'"