Mind the gap

February 13, 2007

If the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association had troubles in the past, the organization is paying for it now. Its bookings for 2008 through 2010 are abysmally low, a reflection of the agency's failure in past years to lock in future business. The new management at BACVA has its work cut out for it. How well it does booking more conventions and meetings will influence the success of the city-financed convention center hotel being built.

The sad, sorry state of Baltimore's convention business dates to 2003, when the BACVA board fired executive director Carroll R. Armstrong for poor performance and falsified booking data. The impact of that unacceptable performance is just now coming into view, because citywide conventions and big meetings are usually reserved five to seven years ahead.

Thomas J. Noonan, the new executive director of BACVA, on the job five weeks, shared the dim outlook with Baltimore area hoteliers last week while discussing strategies to improve convention business in the short term. Room nights generated by citywide group bookings declined from 254,126 in 2005 to 72,231 for 2008.

Mr. Noonan said there is time to improve that disparity, and his ideas for gaining more business and improving the city's overall goals sound promising.

He says he plans to hire a meetings planner from the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area to woo business from pharmaceutical companies based there that tend to book meetings more short-term, commission an independent audit of Baltimore's prospects as a destination, and receive monthly reports from an outside firm that tracks the city's performance. Those tools should help BACVA better plan and assess its outreach effort. But closing deals is the real measure of success.

Across the country, meetings are on the increase for the fourth consecutive year. That should be good news for BACVA, but Charlotte, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Washington also will be competing for business.

The city-financed convention center hotel, which is managed by the Hilton chain, is due to open in 2008. BACVA's sales staff should be partnering with Hilton to help win the convention business that will fill the hotel and keep others in the city busy as well.

Mr. Noonan will need to draw on all of his 18 years' experience in selling the convention trade to replenish the city's lost business in the short term, and - more critical yet - to change the course of BACVA's future.

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