Solid convention activity seen in city

BACVA officials cite 'team approach' for strong growth in traditionally slow period

Baltimore also finalist for national events in '09, '12

April 29, 2004|By Todd Beamon | Todd Beamon,Baltimoresun.com Staff

Baltimore's convention business showed strong growth during the first three months of this year, historically a slow period because of winter weather, and partnerships among various city sectors have placed the region in the final running for two major national conventions.

But the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association expects a 2 percent drop in visitors and spending between April and June, compared with the similar time last year.

BACVA said today that 80,331 people attended conventions in Baltimore between January and March, the third quarter of the city's fiscal year. That figure is up 36 percent from 59,061 people who visited the city during conventions in the comparable period last year.

Those attendees utilized 66,826 hotel rooms, nearly 48 percent more from 45,271 hotel rooms last year, and spent $79.1 million, up 23 percent from the $64.2 percent spent in the 2003 quarter, BACVA said. Spending is based on attendance.

Debra Dignan, BACVA's associate vice president of sales, said the first three months of the year improved so sharply in part because officials were able to accommodate more groups by being "very aggressive" about using space at the Baltimore Convention Center to its full potential.

"It's like putting a huge puzzle together," she said. "It fell into place beautifully this quarter."

Leslie R. Doggett, the association's president and chief executive, cited the importance of teamwork in the association being able to produce such results.

"We are coming together as a team and using that team approach to position Baltimore as a unique experience," Doggett said. "By working together, we have planted in the minds of meeting planners that Baltimore wants your business -- and we will service your business completely."

To this end, cooperative efforts among BACVA, the city's hospitality industry and Mayor Martin O'Malley have put Baltimore at the top of the running for two large conventions.

The city is a finalist for the American Legion's 2009 convention, which would utilize about 19,900 rooms, and for the 2012 session of the Society of Nuclear Medicine (SNM), whose attendees would require about 18,160 rooms.

Representatives of the American Legion were courted in February by BACVA, local hotel managers, O'Malley's Office and Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a longtime member of the Indianapolis-based organization. The next month, planners from SNM, with headquarters in Reston, Va., were feted by O'Malley and hotel managers.

BACVA will make its final pitch to the American Legion's site-selection committee on Monday, Dignan said. The city is competing with Boston and Louisville, Ky.

"They will tell us that day," Dignan said. "It's a nail-biter."

SNM officials will notify BACVA of its decision in June, Dignan said.

In addition, BACVA also is working to bring to Baltimore the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Basketball Tournament for three years starting in 2007, the Prince Hall Shriners in 2006 and Kappa Alpha Psi, a national African-American fraternal organization, in 2009.

These talks were precipitated by local executives through BACVA's Baltimore Ambassadors Program. The effort, introduced in November, enlists business leaders to pitch Baltimore to organizations at the board level, where decisions about destinations are made.

"Without local support for some of these groups, we would not get to the final-selection phase," Dignan said.

Doggett acknowledged, however, that other challenges remain for BACVA. Baltimore lost 97 meetings during the quarter, according to the report. The events would have brought 208,555 people to Baltimore.

Forty-six organizations cut Baltimore out of the running in the first round, Dignan said. "When Baltimore is eliminated, we're not sure which city has been selected," she said. "The process still continues."

In addition, 27 groups said their boards chose other cities over Baltimore for no specific reason, while 22 meetings were lost because of high hotel rates and competitive pricing by other cities.

Doggett said BACVA is continuing to work with local hotel managers to obtain rates that groups might find more acceptable, but it is based on market forces. "There are times when hotels can get high occupancy at a higher rate."

During the period, the city lost nine conventions to Orlando, Fla.; six to Washington; five to Philadelphia; and three to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"We are losing business to top-tier cities," Doggett said. "We're seeing people who we would have never been in competition with. We're getting in the final round, which is a great testament to Baltimore."

The fourth quarter of this fiscal year, April to June, also looks less rosy. Attendance is expected to dip to 65,800, from 67,200 at the same time last year, the association estimates. Visitor spending is expected to fall 2 percent, to $64.8 million.

BACVA also reported that compared with the first three months of 2003, about 45,000 fewer hotel room stays were booked in the third quarter for future years.

But officials attributed the difference to an unusual commitment made by the Baltimore Bays soccer tournament at the beginning of last year to hold the event in the city for 10 years.

The agreement calls for 45,000 hotel room stays over the decade.

Originally published April 29, 2004, 2:48 PM EDT

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