City's New Welcome Mat

Glitzy christening for visitor center

Unveiling: A much larger and display-laden Baltimore Visitor Center opens just in time for a festive weekend at the Inner Harbor.

May 07, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

In a glitzy celebration attended by hundreds and punctuated with pyrotechnics, Baltimore christened its long-awaited Inner Harbor visitor center last night.

Guests watched from two boats docked nearby until the appointed moment when the drapes came down and the lights came up on the $4.5 million building, revealing its inner contents.

"We want this building to be a vibrant reflection of the best Baltimore has to offer," Leslie R. Doggett, president and chief executive of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, said in an interview this week. "It does transform the way we do business. It allows us to focus on customer service and what the customer wants."

The goal is to get the city's more than 11 million out-of-town visitors to come more often and to transform day- trippers into overnight guests, as people realize just how much there is to do in Baltimore, Doggett said.

"We want people to come five times instead of three, or better yet, instead of making a day trip, they'll stay overnight," she said.

The 8,000-square-foot center, at the west end of the Inner Harbor off Light Street, is expected to attract 250,000 visitors during its first year. Along with a new ticketing system and information kiosks, the facility contains a 50-seat theater, restrooms, brochure racks and space for exhibits by area attractions and neighborhood groups. Electronic displays announcing local events scroll across the entrances.

The center's debut coincides with a banner weekend for tourism events in the city, including the first-ever Volvo Waterfront Concert Series, the Hot Air Balloon Festival in Rash Field, the Preakness Parade, a visit from the Spanish tall ship Juan Sebastian de Elcano - which will be docked at the Inner Harbor's west shore - the Maryland Film Festival and a weekend of Orioles vs. Cleveland Indians baseball.

Doggett, who devised a plan to heighten local excitement by keeping the center under wraps, was unable to attend last night because it coincided with a memorial service for her brother who died last week. Frank B. Doggett III, 58, a resident of Severn, died after a long illness, she said.

"It's bittersweet that my vision is becoming a reality and yet I can't be there physically," she said. "But certainly I'm there in spirit."

The center will be staffed by a team of 90 volunteers, about a half-dozen of whom will be on duty at any given time, said Mike Pietryka, director of visitor services for BACVA. Two to four part-time employees will also help man the building, he said.

Inside, vibrant ceiling banners of wood laminate echo the center's wavy roof design. Flat-screen monitors display a scrolling list of activities in categories ranging from dining and nightlife to sports and recreation and history and heritage.

Touch screens provide directions to various destinations, in some cases even offering coupons.

"The whole idea of the building was to make it interactive - not just for people to grab brochures, but to touch screens," Pietryka said. "We've never had a building like this, so it's fun to try out things and see what works. Every time someone comes down here, we want them to stop in to see what's new."

Among the guests attending last night's event was an influential group of about 65 meeting planners, group tour operators and members of the travel media.

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