Mid-Tier Cities Seek Conventions Upswing

Baltimore, San Jose and Others Look to Reverse Recent Sales Setbacks

Baltimore Convention Center


Crunching numbers:
Baltimore Convention Center

Several mid-tier meetings destinations are suffering disappointing numbers, with convention and visitor bureaus in those cities under increased pressure to generate sales.

Baltimore, for example, is experiencing what its boosters characterize as a “trough” in upcoming group business for 2008-2010. Indeed, bureau numbers recently revealed in The Baltimore Sun point to more than a 70 percent decrease in hotel room night bookings, from 254,126 in 2005 to 72,231 in 2008, and a steep drop in the number of groups booked at the city’s convention center. According to the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, 28 groups booked conventions at the center in 2005, compared with 10 for 2008, and nine each for 2009 and 2010.

As a result, Thomas J. Noonan, the BACVA’s new president and chief executive officer, has spent much of his short tenure, which began in January, defending the BACVA’s performance.

“We have 10 bookings, plus seven annuals that book the convention center year after year,” said Noonan. “Let’s make all those annuals definite, and we’re at 17 conventions, not at 10. We also have five or six tentative pieces of business. If we get half, we’re down 25 or 30 percent maybe. It’s not two-thirds down.”

Baltimore is banking that its new publicly financed $301 million headquarters hotel will jump-start business, especially with associations. The 756-room Hilton is slated for an August 2008 opening.

Meantime, in San Jose, Calif., a recent audit of Team San Jose -- a public benefit corporation formed in 2003 to market the 425,000-square-foot San Jose McEnery Convention Center -- also revealed disappointing numbers. For 2004-2005, Team San Jose fell short of several economic targets, including missing its gross revenue goals by more than $1.5 million.

Despite what turned out to be overly rosy projections, Team San Jose officials note that they have increased money coming to the city from conventions. “We’re very proud of our results,” says San Jose CVB president and CEO Daniel Fenton. “Our percentage increase in revenue is great. We originally projected 12 or 13 percent, and we’re at 15 percent year over year.”

Other cities likewise seek ways to increase group visitation. In South Bend, Ind., the 200,000-square-foot Century Center in late February awarded a management contract to Philadelphia-based Global Spectrum. Financial incentives are based on the company’s success at generating operating revenue at the center, which in 2006 came to a total of $1.48 million.