|By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore
SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jul. 19, 2008 - With the opening of Baltimore's $301 million convention headquarters hotel a month away, city convention officials said yesterday they have booked a record number of convention room nights for future years.
The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association said it booked 451,608 room nights in city hotels through 2017 during the fiscal year that ended June 30, an 18 percent jump over last year's bookings.
The number beat the goal of 400,000 room nights -- an achievement BACVA officials credited to the new Hilton Baltimore, a city-owned, 757-room convention headquarters hotel on West Pratt Street set to open next month.
Speaking at a news conference at the Tremont Grand Hotel, Mayor Sheila Dixon said the booking numbers are a validation of the city's decision to move forward with building the Hilton, approved when she was City Council president.
"There was some skepticism there," Dixon said. "This is very encouraging."
Dixon also announced that she is consolidating oversight of BACVA and the Baltimore Convention Center under a new joint board of directors to be headed by BACVA's current chairman, banker Edwin F. Hale.
Even as the tourism industry struggles through an economic downturn, the city has stepped up its marketing efforts to secure long-term convention business to fill the 2,400 hotel rooms at the Hilton and other hotels that have recently opened or are under construction, said Tom Noonan, BACVA president and chief operating officer
"Our goal was 400,000, and we thought that was a stretch," but new marketing initiatives are paying off, said Noonan, who was brought in to run BACVA in early 2007.
In the past, officials blamed Baltimore's under-performing convention business on the lack of a hotel that could commit large blocks of rooms to groups at affordable rates. Yesterday, Noonan said the new Hilton, as well as major renovations at the biggest downtown hotels, have been a big draw.
"When you have a new kid on the block, everyone wants to keep up with the Joneses, and they do renovations," he said. "It's made our whole place look better than it has in 10 or 15 years."
The new bookings announced yesterday do not include business travel or tourism, and more than 70 percent are for events booked at the convention center, with most attendees staying at the new Hilton, Noonan said. He said that 80 percent or more of the Hilton's future bookings are groups that will be using the convention center.
BACVA did not release the number of room nights booked year by year.
The BACVA board tapped Noonan, who had been second in command at the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, to help bolster the city's flagging meetings business after a period of management upheaval. He replaced Leslie R. Doggett, who resigned in May 2006, blaming health and family reasons after several months of absence.
Doggett, a senior tourism official in the Clinton administration at the time she was hired in 2003, was seen as someone who could bring accountability to an agency whose previous management was found to have inflated booking and membership numbers.
Under Noonan, the agency has boosted the sales staff with more industry veterans, created a new alliance with downtown's biggest hotels to increase the room-block commitments for conventions and attended more industry trade shows. It also formed a partnership with Fort Worth and Sacramento that allows the city to benefit from sales people in those cities who also sell Baltimore as part of a three-city package.
Under the restructuring announced yesterday, Noonan and Peggy Daidakis, executive director of the Baltimore Convention Center, will report to the new 32-member Baltimore Convention & Tourism Board.
Both Noonan and Daidakis will continue to run their organizations with separate staffs. BACVA reports to its own board and the convention center reports to a deputy mayor.
"Combining both of these boards makes good business sense," said Hale, chairman and chief executive officer of 1st Mariner Bank and owner of the Baltimore Blast indoor soccer team. "We have all the ingredients to do good things for Baltimore."
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