For more than two decades, thousands of engineers, scientists and mathematicians have come to Baltimore for the Black Engineer of the Year Awards Conference - an annual economic infusion for the city's hotels and restaurants.
It was an event the city's tourism industry could count on year after year, in its peak bringing in as many as 9,000 people and nearly $10 million in spending during the slow winter season.
But conference organizers, lured by perks and incentives, plan to move the conference in February 2011 to Washington, when it will celebrate its 25th anniversary. Organizers said that after years of meeting in Baltimore, they also felt city tourism officials were taking them for granted and did little to prevent the conference from moving.
"Baltimore didn't help keep us here," said Tyrone Taborn, founder of Career Communications Group, the publishing company responsible for the event. "They did nothing."
Baltimore officials disagree, saying they went after the conference aggressively, working with area hotels to get incentives on room rates, among other things. Mayor Sheila Dixon met with Taborn and had repeated phone conversations with him and others involved in planning the event, said her spokesman, Scott Peterson.
"I think we put together a pretty aggressive deal," said Tom Noonan, president and CEO of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's one of the best deals we've ever put together for any of our customers. We wanted their business and we still want their business."
Taborn's response: "If it was so aggressive, why are we going to Washington?"
Baltimore couldn't have lost the event at a worse time. And the move to Washington shows how tough the competition for conventions has become among cities as budget cuts cause many groups to cut back or cancel conventions.
Rite Aid Corp., for example, canceled a convention that had been scheduled for Baltimore in August. It was one of the city's biggest conventions in 2008, bringing 6,000 people to town and accounting for $6 million in direct spending.
Baltimore's total convention revenue slipped from $237 million in fiscal 2008 to $190 million in 2009, according to convention bureau statistics. While the number of conventions remained flat, attendees decreased from 469,000 in 2008 to 339,000 this year.
Ed Rudzinski, area general manager for Marriott hotels, said the engineering conference was what the industry calls a "reliable convention." Attendance at the conference had gotten smaller in recent years like many others, he noted, but it would still be a loss.
"The Black Engineer of the Year Awards brought in good business," he said. "Especially now, when any business is good business."
The conference promotes minority participation in the fields of science, engineering and technology, and includes a project to teach school children about high-tech jobs. Held in February to help mark Black History Month, it stages a gala honoring the Black Engineer of the Year, someone of significance in the field.
Taborn said he started to feel neglected by city officials a couple of years ago, but only recently began aggressively looking at other locations, including Philadelphia and Washington.
The Washington Marriott Wardman Park offered Taborn's conference a deal with lower rates and no minimum food requirements, he said. In Baltimore, the group would have had to pay for exhibit space at the convention center, but the Marriott offered its own exhibit space at no additional cost.
Organizers asked Baltimore convention center officials to waive or reduce the fee for exhibit space, but were told it was the best the city could offer, Taborn said.
Noonan said the city couldn't afford to give up revenue from the convention center during a time of budget cuts and furloughs. The Marriott was in a better position to negotiate because all the amenities were included in one space, he said.
"Could our offer have potentially been even greater if the market wasn't where it was? Perhaps," Noonan said. "With the city budget being the way it is, it ties your hands a little bit."
D.C. tourism and hotel officials wouldn't provide details about the incentives they gave to the engineering conference, but said they welcome the new business.
"Any time we can add an additional piece of business that time of year is good," said Rebecca Pawlowski, director of communications for Destination Washington, the tourism bureau for the city. "It's a nice, high-profile convention to bring to Washington."
Chris Orr, director of marketing for the Renaissance at Harborplace hotel in Baltimore, said competition among cities has heated up during the recession.
"There is more competition between large cities to attract conventions," Orr said. "All the cities that typically compete against Baltimore are experiencing the same downturn that we have so there is more available space up and down the eastern seaboard than there has probably been in the last five years."