Center Maryland: Despite reports of a slide, Baltimore convention business alive – and really kicking

Don Fry headshot - July 2015

Editor’s Note: This commentary was published on CenterMaryland.org on August 21, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

Cvent, an online event booking company, recently issued a report that seemed, on first glance, to suggest that Baltimore’s post-civil unrest image may be having quite a toll on the city’s convention business. The report stated that Baltimore had slid to No. 28, from No. 26, on its list of the top 50 convention destinations.

As such reports go they can be easy pickings for reporters who must continuously feed the online news beast each day. And so, as one might expect, a story appeared in the local press with an unfortunate headline: “Baltimore slides again on list of top convention destinations.”

Now, Baltimore may have slid in the number of conventions booked via Cvent’s registration portal. But there are many portals in which convention bookings are handled and so the Cvent report doesn’t paint a complete or accurate picture of the state of the convention business in Baltimore.

Truth be told, Baltimore’s convention business is quite healthy.

Indeed, the city is looking at a banner year for 2015 when it comes to the number of convention planners choosing Baltimore over its peer city competitors.

For the 2015 calendar year, 30 “citywide” groups – those that are large enough to book into multiple hotels and therefore create  a significant economic impact – have signed on and confirmed Baltimore as their choice for conventions. That’s a record, according to Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism marketing arm.

And 2016 is looking strong too – 28 citywide groups are already on the calendar, Visit Baltimore says.

Now the spring’s civil unrest did cause some groups to cancel their Baltimore event. At least one citywide group decided to cancel its plans for Baltimore, while another group decided to reschedule its convention for another date.

That said, here’s an interesting nugget from post convention reviews that Visit Baltimore has gathered over the course of this summer – a time when you might think visitors would universally be cautious about visiting the city due to negative national press during and since the civil unrest: at least seven groups reported that attendance to their Baltimore conventions exceeded expectations.

And four of those groups booked record-setting attendance numbers.

Here’s another fact that perhaps deserves its own headline in the local press: Baltimore currently is outperforming its peer city competitors, such as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Charlotte and Washington D.C., for the pace of convention bookings this year – and for each year through 2022.

There are a number of reasons for Baltimore leading the pack, says Tom Noonan, President and CEO of Visit Baltimore.

Top reasons, says Noonan: the city’s affordability for hotel rooms and other travel costs compared to competing convention destinations; its central location on the East Coast; and it’s easy air, rail and interstate access from cities with big corporate headquarters, such as New York, Boston and Atlanta.

Another big draw, notes Noonan, is the city’s proximity to leading thinkers and institutions in top markets including the scientific, medical, technical, defense, and education spaces. Conventions can tap these leaders and institutions for speakers, business meetings, and other engagements while in Baltimore – not to mention a large pool of possible attendees.

There’s also the fact that the city offers interesting and attractive cultural, entertainment dining and tourism attractions – many a quick walk, Circulator bus or Water Taxi ride away – for convention goers eager to get beyond the convention center and hotel rooms to explore and savor Charm City.

These are all strengths that peer cities competing for conventions would love to match, but can’t in all categories, and this speaks volumes about why Baltimore is on a roll in the very competitive convention space.

That’s why groups as diverse as the American Legion, Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research, the National Sheriff’s Association and the National Urban League have held, or plan to hold, conventions in Baltimore.

Despite all the positives the city’s convention trade has going for it, press attention tends to focus on the quick and quirky, such as the recent BronyCon convention which drew brightly costumed adult and teenage fans of the My Little Pony kids show that received a flurry of local press coverage.

While that’s fine and good, such coverage – and that like the “Baltimore slides…” headlined story referenced above – miss the point of what a vital economic engine the convention business is to the city, region, and state.

This “convention economy,” you might call it, pumps millions upon millions of  needed dollars into city and state tax coffers and generates jobs, jobs, jobs.

The convention and tourism trades combined directly support an estimated 57,000 jobs – everything from Baltimore Convention Center employees to hospitality and restaurant industry staffing. These jobs provide paychecks that many area families rely on to keep a roof over their head and food on the table.

If those 57,000 jobs were under the roof of one major corporation in Baltimore, I dare say, there might be a lot more recognition of what a gem we are lucky to have in our midst – and we’d see more headlines singing its praises.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and chairman of the Hire One Youth initiative. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.  

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