News for the Hospitality Executive
|By June Arney, The Baltimore Sun
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jan. 26, 2004 - For years, Baltimore's leaders have worried about a convention center that isn't busy enough. They spent $151 million on an expansion and provided millions more in direct and indirect aid to build a harbor-front hotel to help draw convention traffic.
Today, the publicly owned Baltimore Convention Center is still struggling -- it lost $3.8 million in the fiscal year that ended in June -- but the private 750-room hotel built to help it is going great guns, a booming success as a meeting center in its own right.
The Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel opened Feb. 15, 2001, rising 32 stories above the Inner Harbor and offering spectacular water views from every room, more than 80,000 square feet of meeting and function space and the largest ballroom in the state, at 19,360 square feet.
It's a mile across the harbor from the convention center but it boasts an occupancy rate of between 95 percent and 100 percent at least three or four nights a week, excluding the slower months of December and January.
The Marriott's success while the convention center lags behind spotlights the challenges of drawing meetings and visitors in a period of economic uncertainty and security concerns.
While larger convention centers in cities across the nation compete for a shrinking number of large gatherings, hotels offering first-class meeting space and a significant number of rooms under a single roof more frequently thrive.
The Marriott "allows us to compete for conventions that Baltimore hasn't had the opportunity to compete for," said Bobby Vaughan, area director of marketing for the hotel.
The hotel targets meetings of 700 to 1,200 people, which require 450 to 600 rooms on peak nights, and like to be housed under one roof, Vaughan said.
"That size meeting is too small for the convention center but too large for any other hotels in Baltimore," he said. "We get to compete with cities like Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago."
Vaughan doesn't view the convention center as competition for his hotel, but in some senses it clearly is.
In every recent example where the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association offered groups their choice of the Marriott or the convention center, the Marriott won out.
"Six groups had the option of the convention center or the Marriott, and all chose to go to the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront," said Debra Dignan, associate vice president of convention sales for BACVA.
Those six groups represent 13,568 hotel rooms, Dignan said.
"We expect that there are conferences that come into town that can fit under one roof, and they like being under one roof," said Peggy Daidakis, executive director of the convention center.
"It doesn't surprise me that a convention that may have the choice would pick the hotel over the convention center. There are many occasions where the hotel might be able to package their function space because they are getting a guaranteed number of sleeping rooms."
The lack of a headquarters hotel has been an issue for Baltimore since the convention center expansion.
Many meeting planners will not consider holding an event at a center unless there is a headquarters hotel next door or in very close proximity.
In the city's continuing quest for such a hotel, Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, and Quadrangle Development Corp. were awarded a six-month exclusive negotiating priority in November to build a $200 million, 750-room Hilton just north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The goal is to break ground next year and complete the project as early as 2006.
As that project goes forward, BACVA has booked about 110 groups into the Marriott between 2001 and 2009, Dignan said.
Prestigious medical meetings and conferences are one example of the types of groups that Baltimore was well-positioned to land but needed the Marriott's meeting and exhibit space to be able to attract, said Michael S. Beatty, principal and vice president of John Paterakis Sr.'s H&S Properties Development Corp., which developed the hotel.
When the Marriott competes for business, if price isn't an issue, the Marriott will never lose, Beatty said.
"I always thought personally that our hotel would do better as a headquarters hotel than any other in the city. People want to stay on the waterfront and where the action is," he added.
The hotel has rooms booked out to 2012, Vaughan said.
"We've had nothing but good experience with them," said Bobbie McAdam, president of Meeting Planners Inc., of Laurel, who has arranged three meetings at the property.
"It's so far away from the convention center that it made no sense as a headquarters hotel, but it's a beautiful property and the food is excellent. I think of it as its own little world," she said.
She typically handles groups of 50 to 800 people, who prefer self-contained meetings at hotels over convention centers, McAdam said.
In the case of one of the groups, renting space required for its 80 to 96 workshops over a two-day period would be prohibitively costly if the group had to pay for convention center space.
One event that the Marriott has snagged is the annual national conference of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, to be held Nov. 7-11, 2007.
About 700 people are expected to attend.
"We've all been waiting for that size hotel to come into being in Baltimore," said Susan Reichbart, director of conferences and meetings for the human resources group.
"We try not to use a convention center because it's more expensive," she said.
Reichbart said the last estimate she received for the required space at the Baltimore Convention Center was $30,000. That would mean an extra $43 cost for each person attending the meeting.
She understands that when her meeting is held under one roof, the cost of the meeting and exhibit space is built into the hotel room rates. But the group also then has the convenience of a single location.
Holding the meetings at a separate location adds not only transportation and space rental costs, but also proves time-consuming, she noted.
That message came across loud and clear in October when members attending the group's annual meeting in Minneapolis overwhelmingly opted to pay $159 to be in the hotel where the meetings were held rather than save $25 a night and stay at a hotel directly across the street, she said.
Reichbart had targeted Baltimore, back in 1994, as one of several possible sites for her group's annual meeting in 2002, but no hotels could accommodate the group, which rotates among five regions of the country.
"In this case, the convention center was the only place I could have gone," she said. "But it was never pushed. They never tried to give me anything I could consider.
"They never aggressively came after us. It was very surprising to me that they didn't have something to offer. I thought, how could we not be able to go to Baltimore?"
While the Marriott hasn't provided the direct help on bookings for the convention center that some might have hoped, city leaders and those in the hospitality industry say it helps indirectly in a variety of ways, including adding to the city tax coffers, which go in part toward paying the center's operating budget.
Other area hotels reap the benefit of guest overflow from the Marriott. And blocks of rooms are sometimes freed up at other downtown hotels, at prices that are more affordable for typical convention-goers.
Despite having its own agenda, the Marriott has also shown its willingness recently to help BACVA land big conventions by making available blocks of rooms when asked.
"In the past year, we haven't had any trouble putting together the room blocks," Dignan said. "When we knock on their door, they step up to the plate."
Even where the Marriott creates competition within the city, Baltimore ultimately wins, said Leslie R. Doggett, BACVA's president and chief executive.
"It's a win for the city, because it's filling hotel rooms," she said. "It may cause some short-term pain for one segment or entity, but in the long term, it raises the appeal of the destination."
-----To see more of The Baltimore Sun, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.sunspot.net
(c) 2004, The Baltimore Sun. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. MAR,