Conventional wisdom

August 17, 2005

BALTIMORE MAYOR Martin O'Malley is going to get his convention center hotel after all. After weeks of contentious debate, deliberation and concessions by Mr. O'Malley, nine City Council members gave the mayor the votes needed to approve a publicly financed 752-room hotel. Now it's up to the mayor's convention and tourism team to use the project to sell conventioneers on Baltimore.

For starters, a major marketing and sales campaign should be launched to win convention business and inaugurate the new Hilton in 2008. Leslie R. Doggett, executive director of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, has her work cut out for her on that front. The convention center has only eight groups booked for 2008 with another 22 tentatively committed - fewer than the national annual average of 42 events booked for a facility of its size.

The city's pitch has been that the absence of a hotel adjacent to the Baltimore Convention Center has cost the facility business. BACVA's records attribute a loss of 151,977 future room nights - or about $100 million in business - to the lack of a headquarters hotel. But the reason most given for conventions going elsewhere over the same four-year period was the price of city hotel rooms. The loss in future room nights for that reason was 554,572.

It seems the city's popularity as a tourist destination has kept hotel rooms in demand and prices at a premium. That has coincided with a change in the convention market. From now on, expectations and strategies for bringing convention business to Baltimore must reflect those realities.

BACVA must be smart and selective in its sales approach. Its challenge, now that its chief sales executive is finally on board after the position remained vacant for 18 months, is to work cooperatively with hoteliers to achieve the right mix of business. Hotels can't be expected to turn away top-dollar guests during the busy tourist season, but they can offer convention packages in the off-months.

In the current budget, the BACVA sales staff will have the benefit of an additional $500,000 in city funds to make hotel rooms more affordable for prospective convention groups. But in a highly competitive market where other cities offer meeting space for free, half a million dollars seems hardly incentive enough. Allocating more of the city's hotel tax revenue to BACVA's marketing efforts (now set at 40 percent) and increasing state dollars for promotion would help lure conventions.

A state task force this year found the convention center to be "underperforming" and recommended merging the BACVA and convention center sales staffs. Such a move would ensure continuity and accountability; now it's easy to point fingers when the convention center stands empty.

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