|By Allison Connolly and Lorraine
Mirabella, The Baltimore SunMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Dec. 9, 2006 - The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association has tapped an industry veteran as its new president and chief executive officer with hopes he will bolster the city's flagging meetings business.
Thomas J. Noonan, 41, will take the helm Jan. 3. He is senior vice president of sales and services and second-in-command at the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, which oversees the nation's eighth-largest convention market.
Noonan arrives at a pivotal time for the city, which is betting that a publicly financed $301 million headquarters hotel that is under construction will fill the underperforming convention center. But critics of the project have voiced fears that business may not be enough to fill the 757-room Hilton, due to open in 2008.
Noonan replaces Leslie R. Doggett, who resigned in May 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 short on convention experience but was seen as a dynamic deal-clincher who could bring accountability to an agency whose previous management had been found to have inflated booking and membership numbers.
Noonan was introduced as the new chief executive yesterday morning at the association's annual breakfast meeting. He was chosen from among seven finalists for his sales experience, which includes being the Washington representative for the Dallas bureau.
"He's got a Rolodex of groups that would come here," said Edwin F. Hale Sr., BACVA board chairman, who also is chairman and chief executive of First Mariner Bancorp.
Coming from the eighth-largest market to the 56th, as ranked by the industry publication Tradeshow Week, Noonan will have his work cut out for him, said Heywood Sanders, a convention industry expert and professor at University of Texas, San Antonio.
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 doubling the size of its center. And Gaylord National Resorts plans to open an all-inclusive convention resort less than 10 miles from Washington, in Prince George's County, next year.
"One person is a plus, but it's not the whole solution," Sanders said.
Born in Iowa and raised in Minnesota, Noonan spent the past 18 years working for the Dallas bureau, rising from sales manager and becoming its longest-serving employee. He ran the Dallas bureau's Washington office for eight years, increasing sales every year.
In his current position, Noonan manages a staff of 37 sales and services managers and is responsible for half of the bureau's $10 million marketing budget.
Ready to lead He said he is ready to lead an organization, and he has a to-do list of 30 items he wants to accomplish here.
"Dallas, like Baltimore, didn't have a bad reputation," he said. "It didn't have enough of a reputation."
Noonan's boss, Phillip Jones, president and chief executive of the Dallas bureau, praised Noonan for his sales expertise, which has been tested as Dallas faces competition from cities building convention centers.
"In the past, we took it for granted that we got the big shows," Jones said. "We're now competing with cities that weren't even on the map 10 years ago."
Baltimore officials are counting on the convention headquarters hotel to make the city a contender in the bitterly competitive meetings market. With higher-than-average occupancy rates, Baltimore's existing downtown hotels have had little incentive to commit large blocks of rooms at discounted convention rates. The new Hilton, which is adjacent to the convention center, is required to commit 600 rooms.
Critics say other publicly financed projects have failed to live up to projections. Convention business experts found that even if the hotels performed well, they failed to generate substantial continuing new business for a convention center. Or the hotels themselves struggled.
Over the summer, the first since hotel construction began, BACVA saw no improvement in convention center bookings. It booked 13 percent fewer room nights for future convention dates than it did in the summer of 2005. That number did improve significantly over 2004, however.
Still, BACVA officials say the hotel is making a difference. The Institute for Supply Management signed up to bring a 2,500-person convention to Baltimore in 2012, and US Lacrosse scheduled its annual 5,000-person convention for the center for three consecutive years -- from 2009 to 2011 -- because of the new Hilton.
O'Malley impressed Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley, said the governor-elect interviewed Noonan this week by telephone and was impressed with his credentials. O'Malley's chief of staff, Clarence T. Bishop, a BACVA board member, was a finalist for the job but withdrew his name.
"We look forward to working with him," Guillory said of Noonan. "There is a lot of exciting new opportunities facing our new convention business, especially with the new convention center hotel opening up."
Noonan said he plans to work closely with Ronnie L. Burt, who had been serving as interim CEO and will resume his position as vice president of convention sales and services.
In his new role, Noonan also will be tasked with promoting Baltimore's new city slogan, "Get In On It." Noonan says he is already "in on it."
Even after his eight-year stint as a regional vice president in Washington ended in 2002, he said he still calls the area -- including Baltimore -- "home." He said he was reluctant to go back to Dallas for the promotion to senior vice president.
When he heard the Baltimore job was open, Noonan said he called a headhunter to put his name in the running.
Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.
Copyright (c) 2006, The Baltimore Sun
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