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Event planners: Baltimore starting to change perceptions

Barbara McRae

More than 3,000 meeting and convention planners from around the world flocked to Baltimore Tuesday for the Americas Meeting and Events Exhibition at the Baltimore Convention Center, providing a platform for the city to boost its reputation worldwide as a destination for business and leisure tourism.

Based on initial reactions from convention-goers Tuesday, Baltimore is making the most of its opportunity to change people’s perceptions about the city.

Julie Ford, business tourism manager for Hamilton Island at the Great Barrier Reef, said any initial impressions she had were quickly dissolved when she arrived in Baltimore Monday from Sydney, Australia.

“Before I came here everyone had been telling me about the TV show ‘The Wire.’ But I’ve felt completely safe since I got here,” Ford said. “It’s a very pretty and clean city and the convention center and light rail are both very nice.”

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Barbara McRae, the chief planner at Toronto-based corporate event planning company Strategic Events, said she had been to Baltimore once before and found it clean and well equipped.

“It’s got a nice convention center, it’s really easy to get in and out of, they’ve got three different major airports that you can fly through, and lots of accommodations,” McRae said. “And there’s tons to do here in Baltimore and in the vicinity.”

Julio Benard, director of Kakaw & Sapphire Central America in Guatemala, has attended AIBTM’s European equivalent several times and said Baltimore is well qualified to host a convention of this magnitude.

“It has all the infrastructure needed,” he said. “First of all, it’s in a place which has a lot of nice centers, a lot of hotels. It’s a very well-known, reputable city worldwide for these kinds of events. It’s very well organized, very clean, very updated.”

Baltimore was chosen to host the convention because of its location, size and facilities, Steve Knight, project manager of AIBTM, said.

“We did a search throughout many cities in the U.S. Some were too big, some were too small, some didn’t have availability. But I think when we came to Baltimore we knew we found the right choice for several reasons,” Knight said, citing Baltimore’s size, airport and proximity to other major cities as major factors in the decision.

“Baltimore does do quite well already, it’s a very well-known city, it’s got a good center and good facilities,” Knight said. “But I think what this event will do is it will bring a lot of people here who have not been before and it will certainly give an international perspective.

“There’s a lot of people … who might not actually necessarily have known where it was before,” Knight added. “But they’ll know now and they’ll get to see it firsthand, which I think is great for the city.”

Tom Noonan, CEO of the city’s tourism agency Visit Baltimore, said AIBTM provides an opportunity to introduce the world to “the New Baltimore.”

“People have this perception of Baltimore as an industrial city or a seaport city,” Noonan said. “But the new Baltimore is Under Armour and the Four Seasons. We are an education and medicine city now. We’re knowledge based, not industrial based, and everyone attending AIBTM is getting to see that firsthand.”

Visit Baltimore has done all it can to make sure attendees have positive first impressions of the city, Noonan said, spending about $1.5 million on preparation for the convention. These costs covered everything from signs and marketing to tourism and etiquette training for the city’s workers.

Noonan also said Baltimore is counting on AIBTM to bring convention bookings to Baltimore in the future in addition to AIBTM, which Baltimore will be hosting for the next three years.

“We’re really going to be able to build a nice base of future business because of hosting this show,” Noonan said. “It really is one of our major marketing themes — selling the city of Baltimore as a convention destination going forward.”

The conference will run until Thursday at the Baltimore Convention Center and is put on by Reed Travel Exhibitions. This is the first AIBTM conference held in the U.S.