New visitors bureau CEO pledges accountability

Skeptical restaurateurs, hoteliers pose questions

October 02, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

After years of fudged numbers that led to a top-level shake-up at Baltimore's convention and visitors bureau, the group's new leader told a gathering of hotel and restaurant executives yesterday that she will bring more accountability to the agency.

Leslie R. Doggett, at her first public event since being hired as president and chief executive officer, pledged quarterly reports about meetings brought to town, future hotel room bookings, leisure inquiries and lost business.

She also unveiled a new mission statement for her organization, vowed to hold regular town hall-style forums and promised to rebrand Baltimore.

"Research is important to me," she said in response to a restaurant owner who said she was skeptical of data from the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "People need to believe the numbers. We must have information that people believe. We're not making these numbers up."

The agency's former director for seven years, Carroll R. Armstrong, was ousted in February in the wake of a scathing review of the bureau. It detailed allegations of inflated booking and membership numbers.

If Doggett - formerly with the U.S. Commerce Department under the Clinton administration and the New York City mayor's office - was at all ruffled by the occasional critical remark from the audience on her 23rd day on the job, she didn't let it show.

She remained poised on stage at the Walters Art Museum, where the forum was held, and did a lot more listening than talking. As needed, she called on associates to provide detailed answers.

Nearly 100 representatives from the hospitality and tourism industry glimpsed ancient Egyptian artifacts from the museum's latest exhibit as they descended to a plush basement auditorium to air their ideas and concerns.

Two morning sessions drew dozens from the hotel and restaurant and service sectors. An afternoon gathering for nonprofit and arts groups drew about 35 people.

Questions ranged from what BACVA is doing to attract business during slow months, to plans for the city's convention headquarters hotel, to what BACVA can do to help promote neighborhoods.

And the audience suggestions were far-reaching.

"One of the things we could do as hoteliers would be to put together a winter festival event," said Christopher Tompkins, director of sales and marketing at the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore.

Although Baltimore had such a festival during the 1980s and 1990s, it centered on the ice-skating rink at Rash Field at the Inner Harbor, said Lisa Hansen, senior director of marketing and tourism.

Tompkins said he would like to see several of the city's hotel and promotion organizations join together and contribute $500,000 to $1 million toward such an event, to be held at multiple locations such as last winter's "Vivat!" tribute to St. Petersburg.

"It can create excitement," Tompkins said. "People would say: `Let's go.' Although our waterfront is fabulous, who wants to be on the water in January or February, unless you're in the Caribbean?"

Although yesterday's audience seemed supportive of the new leadership, not everyone was immediately won over.

"There is very little credibility with BACVA among restaurant owners," said Carole Oliver, owner of the Wharf Rat Bar. "We don't believe your numbers. Most of us are extremely angry. I would estimate we have 40 percent of the conventions we used to have. I'd like to know what you're going to do."

Doggett said this year and next have been projected as slow nationally for some time.

"The industry nationwide is extremely competitive," she said. "2005 - that's when you're going to see the pickup."

Doggett steps into a battered bureau that essentially shut down its sales operation for three months at Armstrong's request, so that internal files could be examined in preparation for an external review that eventually led to his downfall. The bureau ended its fiscal year June 30 with 364,188 future hotel rooms booked - about two-thirds of its projection.

Also during fiscal 2003, Baltimore's convention business dipped to its lowest level since the city's convention center was tripled in size in 1997, according to statistics released last month.

BACVA's use of inflated hotel bookings came to light during the evaluation carried out by Performance Management Inc. of Stamford, Conn., last year. It showed that the agency knowingly used figures that provided a false impression that the organization was meeting or surpassing its goals.

In some cases, BACVA included in its booking numbers rooms that it had no role in selling. In fiscal year 2002, for example, BACVA reported that it booked 523,865 rooms. That number turned out to be inflated by 107,495.

The deception had gone on for years - before Armstrong's tenure, according to the consultant's report.

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