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Incoming Chief of Baltimore's Convention and Visitors Association Expects
 the $301 million Publicly Financed 757 room Hilton to Jump Start
 the City's Underperforming Convention Center

By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore SunMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Dec. 29, 2006 - When Thomas J. Noonan takes over next week as head of Baltimore's convention and tourism bureau, the view from his new office will remind him daily on just how much is riding on his performance: the $301 million publicly financed headquarters hotel rising adjacent to the Pratt Street convention center.

Noonan, who becomes president and chief executive of the Baltimore Convention and Visitors Association on Wednesday, is charged with ensuring that the hotel, set to open in 2008, will jump-start Baltimore's long lagging meetings business and revive its underperforming convention center.

It's a bet that the 41-year-old industry veteran is confident Baltimore can win.

The new hotel gives BACVA something it's never had -- the ability to commit hundreds of hotel rooms at discounted convention rates. That will help, he says. While Baltimore, now ranked 56th as a market for trade shows by industry publication Tradeshow Week, will never be a Las Vegas or Orlando, Fla., it should certainly be among the top 20 in terms of hotel night bookings, Noonan believes.

"It's got the makings of a great convention destination," said Noonan, who comes to BACVA from the No. 2 job at the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, where he's worked for his entire 18-year career.

"If you look at Baltimore as a destination, with its air access, and the harbor and the new hotels coming on board, the proximity of those hotels to the conventions center, it is a solid second-tier city. I would put it against any other second-tier city -- Portland, Seattle, Charlotte -- in that competitive set."

Noonan plans to do just that, pitting Baltimore against other cities in the fight to win highly coveted convention business.

He says it will be crucial to spread BACVA's budget further, find new funding sources, enlist the help of members of the business and tourism community and work with corporate partners.

Still, he's faces some daunting challenges. Some fear that the 757-room, four-star Hilton will itself struggle to attract enough business.

And nearby convention destinations -- and prime competitors -- are not standing still. Washington opened a new convention center in 2003 with more than double the exhibition space of Baltimore's center. To the north, Philadelphia is spending $700 million to double its convention center. And Gaylord National Resorts plans to open an all-inclusive, waterfront convention resort less than 10 miles from Washington, in Prince George's County, next year.

Selling Baltimore will take nothing less than solid and proven sales experience, said Edwin F. Hale Sr., BACVA board chairman, who also is chairman and chief executive of First Mariner Bancorp. When it came to a pool of candidates, Noonan topped the group with his extensive experience courting associations and his personal relationships within the industry, Hale said.

"I have a pretty good feeling about his ability to bring it home," Hale said.

Noonan is taking over an agency that has also had its challenges. He replaces Leslie R. Doggett, who resigned in May because of health and family reasons after several months' absence. Doggett, a former senior tourism official in the Clinton administration, was hired in July 2003 to bring accountability to BACVA after its previous head was fired that year when bookings and membership numbers were found to have been inflated, and an interim CEO was named.

But the Baltimore Convention Center has continued to falter. Attendance dropped 25 percent in the first three months of 2006 and overnight hotel stays in Baltimore declined by almost 2 percent compared with a year earlier, according to a quarterly report BACVA released in September.

In one way or another, Noonan has spent much of his 41 years preparing for his new job.

As the son of a medical association executive, he grew up in Rochester, Minn., stuffing convention packets and listening to meeting industry talk.

"I remember as a kid I thought this was pretty interesting," Noonan said.

After graduating from Luther College in Iowa, he took an entry-level sales job at the Dallas Convention Bureau wooing small groups and then moved on to bigger jobs. In 1994, he moved to the bureau's regional office in Washington, where he worked first as director of sales and then as vice president of sales for the eastern region. There, he relished working at the center of the action, close to the headquarters of countless associations and other cities' convention bureau regional offices.

A decision in 2001 to leave Washington to become senior vice president of sales and services -- second in command -- back in Dallas fit with a long-term goal of one day returning to the Mid-Atlantic and leading a convention bureau.

In Dallas, ranked as the eighth-biggest market for trade shows, "Tom was an enthusiastic and articulate champion of the city," said Tom Faust, director of sales and marketing for the Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas.

Phillip Jones, chief executive of the Dallas bureau and Noonan's former boss, credits him with helping to execute a strategy to sell Dallas as a destination and a 35 percent increase in hotel nights booked over the past three years. Noonan led an effort to raise $2.5 million from the private sector to help showcase the city to thousands of meeting planners who attended a convention in July, Jones said.

"He is all sales, all the time; that's what Tom does," Jones said.

Hale said Noonan's experience makes him ready for the top job in Baltimore.

Noonan "got to know the associations around the country that would come here and do citywide conventions," Hale said. "A lot of people know him. He has very good references and good recommendations. People were calling and saying what a good hire he'd be because of his contacts. He has credibility based on what he did in D.C."

Hale says it will be important for Noonan to make his presence known. Noonan agrees. No. 1 on a 30-item to-do list he's put together is meeting with key stakeholders, from city elected officials to business people who rely on tourism. High on the list are plans to evaluate the BACVA budget to see where and how money is being spent, to visit feeder markets such as Philadelphia and Washington, and to attend events for meeting planners.

"We look forward to having a new vision given to us, and hope he can fill the city with lots of conventions," said Hayley Grimes, director of sales and marketing for the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel.

"It takes somebody with experience, which he has, and pulling our efforts together to really entice conventions to come to Baltimore," Grimes said.

Noonan said he sees some similarities between Dallas and Baltimore. "Baltimore doesn't have a bad reputation," he said, and Dallas "didn't have enough of a reputation."

In Dallas, he found people loved living there but wouldn't want to visit. To bolster the city's image, he found it necessary to start with changing locals' perception of their hometown as a worthwhile place to visit.

"When you bring a piece of business to a city like Dallas or Baltimore, people have jobs because of it," Noonan said. "I love the opportunity of selling an entire destination."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Baltimore Sun

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