Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on May 30, 2016.
By Donald C. Fry
In August the National Urban League will hold its annual conference in Baltimore, an event that will provide a huge economic boost to the city.
An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people will attend the event, August 3-6, fueling an estimated $4.2 million into the local economy.
The civil rights organization’s executive leadership and Board of Directors ultimately selected Baltimore. But it was the Greater Baltimore Urban League’s president and CEO, J. Howard Henderson, who diligently went to work behind the scenes last summer to convince national leaders to pick Baltimore.
“I really felt the convention needed to be held in Baltimore this summer so we could shine a light on the city and show everyone that Baltimore is far better than what people may have seen on The Wire,” Henderson said, referring to the HBO crime drama series based in the city. The civil unrest of last spring unfortunately reinforced the show’s crime culture images, he added, and he believed that hosting the convention in Baltimore could help reverse that image.
Henderson’s efforts to work with the local business community and to lobby the organization’s national office to select Baltimore for the annual event is a great example of what the local private sector can – and should – do more of to give Baltimore a boost and help dust off the negative public perceptions triggered by the extensive news coverage of last spring’s unrest.
In short, by choosing to “stay local” for conferences, tradeshows and other events the private sector can leverage its people and spending power to rebuild Baltimore’s public image and fuel the local economy.
Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism arm, has long been working to encourage the private sector to keep events and meetings in the city or convince their organization’s headquarters to select Baltimore for events, as Henderson did, with its Meet Local campaign.
Since re-launching the campaign late last year Visit Baltimore reports that it has booked more than 20 independent meetings.
These activities will draw a projected 11,400 attendees and pump an estimated $5.4 million into the local economy, Visit Baltimore estimates.This offers a snapshot of the spending power for meetings and other events that reside locally in the private sector.
An event doesn’t need to be large or even business-related to have a ripple effect on the local economy, said Amy Calvert, Senior Vice President of Convention Sales & Services for Visit Baltimore.
A retreat or family reunion held over just a few days could mean a lot to the people who work at a hotel, restaurant or catering business.
For example, 100 people staying and meeting at a Baltimore hotel for a three-day period could generate as much as $100,000 in economic activity for the city, Visit Baltimore figures show.
Overall, Baltimore’s convention, meeting and tourism industries are a vital component of the regional economy. They support more than an estimated 82,000 jobs, according to Visit Baltimore. Those jobs generate $2.7 billion in salaries – some of which flows back into the local economy.
Visit Baltimore estimates that 7.4 percent of all employment in the Baltimore area is tied to meetings and tourism and state and city tax revenue generated by the meetings, conventions and tourism business exceeds an estimated $600 million annually.
The tax, employment and financial numbers highlight that the hospitality, convention and tourism industries are among the cornerstones of the Baltimore economy. They help keep the regional business climate thriving.
From that perspective alone it makes a lot of sense for the private sector to think of Baltimore first when planning an event.
In fact, another key reason Henderson said he wanted the annual convention to be held in Baltimore this summer was to support the local economy, especially the hospitality and tourism industries.
“A lot of the people we represent and speak for work at hotels, restaurants and tourism attractions and they took quite a hit economically last summer,” said Henderson, who also sits on the Board of Directors of the Greater Baltimore Committee.
“By getting the national conference to be held in Baltimore we will help stabilize these industries and by doing that we will stabilize communities,” he said.
For those readers who think company executives, employees or even family members might balk at the suggestion of staying local for an event it is worth noting that Fodor’s named Baltimore one of the “Top 15 Waterfront Destinations in the World” and Travel + Leisure magazine named Baltimore to its “Top 20 Charming American Cities” list.
Baltimore attractions range from tours of historic Fort McHenry, visits to the National Aquarium or Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, and baseball games at one of the top Major League Baseball stadiums in America – Orioles Park at Camden Yards.
Henderson said he is confident that as national conference attendees experience such attractions or others – even if it’s a walk around the Inner Harbor – they will return to their hometowns to sing Baltimore’s praises.
“Baltimore is dusted off and shining up,” Henderson said. “People will leave the conference with a great experience in Baltimore. They will go back to their own communities and let everyone know that Baltimore is a good place and a safe place to visit and do business.”
That, in a nutshell, may be the best of all reasons for Baltimore’s private sector to leverage its “staying power” and Meet Local.
For more information on the Meet Local campaign see Visit Baltimore.
Donald C. Fry is the President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.