Baptist meeting a record for city

National Baptist Congress' 50,000 visitors occupy hotels, attractions far beyond Inner Harbor


Fifty thousand Baptists are getting in on it.

The city's biggest-ever convention is in town for the week, and anyone else downtown yesterday could feel the impact. The National Baptist Congress of Christian Education transformed Interstate 95 north into a creeping, crawling mess. It has packed downtown hotels and overflowed into suburban lodgings. It's flooded the streets, restaurants and tourist attractions with badge-wearing, photo-taking visitors, adults and kids alike.

Imagine Oriole Park at Camden Yards at full capacity - and then imagine all those people milling around for roughly five days.

"Fifty thousand people in a town the size of Baltimore makes a massive difference," said James Blackman, assistant manager at Phillips Harborplace.

The seafood restaurant sees an increase from all conventions but had a line more than 50 people deep for its buffet even after the normal lunch rush, said Andrea Simpson, director of marketing for Harborplace and the Gallery.

"It seems like every other person is with this conference," she said. "The foot traffic is incredible."

Tonia Noonan, director of sales and marketing at the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore, said all 439 rooms there are full - as in taken, and also as in well-crammed with people.

"Our lobby is jamming," she said, bubbling with enthusiasm yesterday, the first full day of the event. "We need more of these - back to back to back, year-round."

The Baptist convention is substantially larger than Baltimore's previous record holder, the Church of God in Christ, which attracted 30,000 people for its convention in 2003. And the expected 50,000 people this week are double the numbers at the Shriners' meeting here last year.

The Baptist group is using about 25,000 rooms in more than 19 hotels, according to the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

The impact is rippling far from downtown, pushing to Ellicott City, the hotels around the airport, even Annapolis.

Maxine James, general manager of the Annapolis Residence Inn by Marriott, said the hotel doesn't have many attendees but she knows it's benefiting anyway.

"We're sold out, definitely sold out, and I've spoken to a number of the other hotels - they're sold out as well," she said. "People who didn't know there was a convention [and] just drove into town expecting to get a room, it's pushed them more south."

Baltimore, which recently unveiled its new tourism marketing message, "Get in on it," hopes that this big convention paves the way for others.

Ronnie Burt, BACVA interim president and chief executive, estimated that people in town for the Baptist event will spend $41 million over the week.

That's $820 a head. Convention expert Heywood Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio, doubts a religious gathering would produce that much. In contrast with professional conventions and business trade shows, the people attending such events usually must pay their own way and are looking to save money.

That's why the conventions in the category the industry dubs "SMURF" - social, military, educational, religious and fraternal - "are considered the bottom of the barrel," Sanders said.

"It's nice that there's a big meeting; its economic impact is likely to not be the same as a comparably-sized meeting of a different group," he said.

But the Baptist group might have an outsized impact for a religious meeting. Because attendees include thousands of children, many parents are probably treating the trip as a family vacation, said Gloria M. Herbert, associate publisher and editor of Black Meetings & Tourism.

Joan Wright, a minister from South Carolina who drove up Sunday, said her church paid most of the registration and hotel fees for the members who came with her, leaving them free to spend at will around town.

"I would imagine you all are going to do well," she said about Baltimore businesses yesterday as she took a break for shopping.

Some do better than others, naturally. Edgar's Billiards Club on Pratt Street was empty at lunchtime; bartender Natalie Chirichella said this wasn't the type of convention that would bring her business. Larry Flynt's Hustler Club on the Block isn't getting any Baptists either - or at least none willing to admit it, said daytime manager Hans Baumgartel.

But Harborplace's Hooters, believe it or not, has been getting a regular stream of convention-goers, said manager Chris Greene.

Several busloads of attendees have been to the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum on North Avenue, and more are signed up to come. The USS Constellation Museum was busy yesterday. And at Lexington Market on the west side, hundreds of convention-goers have already passed through, said executive director Casper Genco.

"The merchants are very, very excited," said Genco, who added that the convention has had the biggest impact on the market of any event except ones the market puts on itself. "It has a positive impact on so many people."

Best attended conventions

Baltimore's best-attended conventions and trade shows:

1. National Baptist Congress of Christian Education, 2006

50,000 attendees

2. Church of God in Christ, 2003

30,000 attendees

3. Shriners, 2005

25,000 attendees

4. Otakon, 2005

22,000 attendees

5. Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, 2002

20,000 attendees

6. Natural Products Expo, 2000

19,000 attendees

7. Firehouse Expo, 2005

16,000 attendees

8. American Towman Exposition, 2000

15,000 attendees

9. Internet Service Providers, 2001

15,000 attendees

10. National Fiber Optics Engineers, 2001

15,000 attendees

[ Source: Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association]

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