City tourism has big boost in quarter

But a 2% drop is forecast for April-to-June period

April 30, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's convention-fueled tourism improved significantly during the usually weak first three months of the year but is poised for a dip through June, according to numbers released yesterday.

The latest Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association report shows a nearly 50 percent jump in hotel room use for conventions and meetings from January through March, compared with the corresponding period last year.

More than 80,000 visitors came to the city, a 35 percent increase. And the money they spent while in town - slightly less than $80 million - rose by nearly a quarter, the association said.

The association expects a 2 percent drop in visitors and spending in the April-June quarter compared with the period last year.

Leslie R. Doggett, the association's president and chief executive, said this is a challenging market in which to work because it remains unpredictable nationally, although bookings for next year are brisk.

"You have an economy that no one can really forecast," she said. "This is the most volatile market I have ever seen. You will see that roller-coaster ride in these reports until we level out, and no one seems to be able to forecast when we'll level out."

Debra Dignan, associate vice president of sales for the association, 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 convention center space to its full potential.

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

The beginning of the year also was "a big improvement" for the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, said John C. Davis, director of sales and marketing there. He attributes it to a pickup in the economy, and he is cautiously optimistic about the rest of the year.

"More leisure travelers are out," he said. "Business travelers are returning to previous levels of demand. And the groups and conventions that the hotel hosts - more and more folks are attending the meetings."

Nationwide, the U.S. lodging industry's occupancy rate rose 4.4 percent in the first three months of the year.

January to March was the city convention and visitors association's third quarter, which can be its worst season because the weather is uninviting. But numbers improved from the second quarter - more visitors booked rooms in the third quarter and spent about $15 million extra while in town.

The fourth quarter - April to June - looks less rosy. Attendance will dip to 65,800 from 67,200 during the period last year, the association estimates. Visitor spending is expected to fall 2 percent to $64.8 million.

The association also reported that, compared with the first three months of last year, about 45,000 fewer hotel room nights were booked in the third quarter for future years.

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. That agreement calls for 45,000 hotel room nights over the decade.

The 75,900 hotel room nights booked from January to March for future years is a big increase over the 47,000 rooms booked in the second quarter.

The association ran a winter marketing campaign promoting Baltimore as a romantic getaway in markets such as Philadelphia.

Officials got nearly 290,000 "inquiries" through Baltimore.org and 877-BALTIMORE, more than 27,000 of which were requests for trip-planning packets.

Doggett said she's particularly pleased with the increased local support for winning conventions as more area politicians and business people try to sell the city as a destination.

She said Baltimore is a finalist for the American Legion's 2009 convention because local Legion members helped bring meeting planners to the city in February, and local leaders welcomed the visitors at the National Aquarium.

"It's about building a team," she said. "That lays the foundation for the long-term success of Baltimore."

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