Convention choice

December 01, 2006

Before the year ends, the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association should have in place an executive director who can drive home business for the convention center and its new hotel, scheduled to debut in August 2008. The national search for a new leader is winding down and it's critical that professional credentials and industry experience trump any other criteria in making this choice.

This job is more than boosterism; it's about selling Baltimore, attracting convention prospects and having what it takes to close the deal. It's all about business.

A new director would succeed Leslie R. Doggett, who resigned in May for health and family reasons. Ms. Doggett, a tourism official in the Clinton administration, inherited an agency mired in scandal because it had inflated data and lost convention bookings. She was without a chief sales executive for too long a time, when sales needed to be BACVA's prime focus.

Convention center bookings are advancing, but it's a competitive business with ebbs and flows, depending on the season. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, hotel room nights booked by convention sales staff increased 22 percent over the 2005 fiscal year and the number of groups booked (275) grew 9 percent. Events at the convention center during that same fiscal year totaled 201, up from 183, but the number of attendees remained static at 544,682.

The city and state can't afford not to have a top-notch professional leading BACVA, which is funded primarily by the city with help from a state grant. The more business BACVA can generate for the city and its environs, the greater the benefit for local businesses and attractions and, presumably, the lower the operating deficit at the convention center, which the city and state jointly cover.

For the city, there's more at stake. The decision to build a city-financed, 750-room convention hotel was based on the argument that the city couldn't attract the really lucrative convention business because it didn't have a companion hotel adjacent to the convention center. As part of the deal, city officials estimated that robust hotel bookings would ensure that the city didn't incur expenses related to the hotel's debt financing. Since it began its advance sales in July, Hilton, the convention hotel operator, has sold 36,987 room nights. How that stacks up to expectations, no one is saying.

If Ms. Doggett was a transitional leader to help BACVA dig out from its mess, her successor should be expected to invigorate this underutilized convention center and bring it to its full potential.

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