Convention tally at a 3-year low

First-quarter attendance fell 25%

hotel stays slip

September 22, 2006|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,Sun reporter

Attendance at the Baltimore Convention Center dropped 25 percent in the first three months of 2006 - its largest drop in three years - and overnight hotel stays in Baltimore declined by almost 2 percent compared with a year earlier. Those results were included in a quarterly report commissioned by the Baltimore Area Convention & Visitors Association.

The decline in attendance and room nights - an industry measure of the total nights booked for hotel stays - comes as construction of the long-awaited convention hotel is under way. City convention officials have long pushed for the city-financed Hilton convention hotel even as some doubted BACVA's ability to fill the 757 rooms scheduled to open in 2008. And the quasi-governmental tourism agency is looking for a permanent leader to replace Leslie R. Doggett, who resigned in May for health and family reasons.

The report released this week showed total convention center attendance decreased to 156,000 in the traditionally weak first quarter compared with 209,000 in the first three months of last year.

That figure includes traffic at conventions and trade shows as well as public shows, which typically draw local crowds. The report by Nadler & Associates analyzes quarterly data from the convention center, hotels, transportation hubs, tourism taxes and various Baltimore attractions. This report has been done quarterly since 2004.

The number of hotel room nights in the Baltimore area fell 1.7 percent in the quarter to 401,000 from 408,000 during the 2005 period. Nationwide, however, hotels experienced a 2 percent increase in room nights during the first quarter.

Ronnie Burt, BACVA's interim president and chief executive officer, said yesterday that two major factors contributed to the first-quarter attendance decline.

The numbers reflected the absence of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention, which had brought more than 7,000 visitors to the city in January 2005. That convention rotates through various sites annually. Also, Burt said, the Black Heritage Art Show charged admission this year for its annual Baltimore-based exhibit in February, which had a "significant impact" on the attendance.

Still, results from one quarter don't provide a "true perspective of a convention center's performance," he said.

BACVA, which operates on a fiscal calendar, reported an increase in the number of events in the most recent fiscal year ending June 30 from the corresponding period: to 201 from 183. Total attendance, however, was flat at 544,682.

The number of attendees using hotel rooms rose almost 5 percent to 321,854 in the 2006 fiscal year from 307,583 in the previous period.

The agency also reported that its sales department booked 353,573 room nights for future years during the last fiscal year, a 22 percent increase from the 2005 fiscal year bookings.

Burt said the outlook for convention center attendance in the second quarter is promising with an anticipated 56 percent increase: to 123,000 in the three months ending in June compared with 79,000 in the corresponding period last year.

Convention industry expert Heywood Sanders, professor of public administration at the University of Texas, San Antonio, said the second-quarter attendance increase is not surprising considering 50,000 Baptists came to Baltimore for the convention of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education in late June.

Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman and chief executive of First Mariner Bancorp and chairman of BACVA, said he expects the 25 percent dip in first-quarter attendance to be a blip in overall performance.

"The forward bookings are looking good," he said. "We're hopeful when the convention hotel comes onboard in August 2008, that's going to have a positive effect, too."

Matthew Dykstra, director of sales for the Hilton, said meeting and convention planners have been waiting for a headquarters hotel at the Baltimore Convention Center.

"With the added rooms at the Hilton, it really separates Baltimore from some of the other cities we compete with," he said. "That's a huge factor."

The proposal to build the Hilton did not come without controversy. Last year, as the city pushed efforts to finance the $305 million hotel, critics noted that the city's convention center had yet to achieve its lofty projections from the time of its last expansion in 1996.

The Renaissance Harborplace Hotel said it experienced a drop in business in the first three months of the year because of a decline in convention center bookings.

Hotel activity, however, has since picked up, said Hayley Grimes, director of sales and marketing.

"Traditionally the first quarter is bad, the worse quarter for the whole city," Grimes said. "It is what it is. It's the first quarter."

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