Baltimore hoping to snag some conventions slated for New Orleans

Displaced meetings could be worth millions to city

Katrina's Wake

September 02, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

With New Orleans under water and its convention center serving as a refugee camp, it's clear that the hundreds of organizations that planned fall conventions in the city will be making other arrangements.

As convention planners scramble to find new meeting locations, Baltimore and cities across the country are hoping to take New Orleans' place, capturing business worth untold millions of dollars.

"This is a tragic situation, and I don't want to sound like a non-caring, aggressive salesperson," said Ronnie Burt, Baltimore Area Convention & Visitors Association's vice president of convention sales. "We want to assist customers in their time of need."

New Orleans, with its waterfront setting and its reputation as a free-spirited good time, is one of the country's most popular convention destinations. And fall is the industry's busiest season.

Tens of thousands of association members were expected to fill New Orleans' convention center through September, October and well into next year.

Over the past two days, Burt said, he and his eight-person sales staff have done little else than work the phones to see whether Baltimore could accommodate any of the stranded conventions.

Baltimore's biggest hotels have joined in, calling sister Sheratons and Hyatts in New Orleans to see whether they can take any of their guests.

"It's been very intense," Burt said.

With Baltimore's fall calendar unusually full, Burt doubts any of New Orleans' September or October bookings will be heading this way. And chances are, he said, that those conventions will be canceled anyway.

It's nearly impossible to take a convention that has been planned for years - the date set, attendees' reservations made, speakers booked - and turn on a dime to move it hundreds of miles away.

And that's assuming that another city has space available.

"From a convention-planning point of view, that's a nightmare," Burt said. "You're trying to re-plan an event in a 30-day window."

Baltimore's convention bureau talked to but couldn't help the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, a group that had planned to be in New Orleans next weekend. "I'm looking at their Web site right now, and they canceled it," Burt said.

Baltimore is also talking with the National Black MBA Association, the Self Insurance Institute and Sweet Adelines International, a singing group - all of which planned October conventions in New Orleans.

After seeing how profoundly Hurricane Katrina crippled New Orleans, Burt and convention planners are assuming that the city won't back in business for months. And the competition is most fierce for the events New Orleans was going to have in 2006.

Burt said he already is talking to the Orthopedic Research Society, a group of 2,000 that had planned to go to New Orleans in March.

"It is reasonable to think there could be opportunities for us," Burt said. "It all depends on how long this thing goes on and how fast they recover from it."

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