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Area tourism, conventions take a bath

As rain mercilessly pelted pedestrians and rising waters threatened to bury parts of downtown Baltimore on Monday, the city’s tourism industry took a beating, as well.

Hurricane Sandy Tourism

A near-empty Baltimore Convention Center on Monday afternoon. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Hotels were emptier than expected, conventions were under-attended and storefronts went dark.

“We’ve had many cancellations,” said Jaunice Clinkscale, a guest services representative at the Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel. “One by one, the calls are coming in.”

Clinkscale estimated about 20 percent of the hotel’s bookings for Monday had been canceled by noon. A group of 17 people, plus several individuals, canceled Sunday, she added.

Guests have also backed out of reservations at the Royal Sonesta Harbor Court Baltimore. Jim Coffey, director of sales and marketing, said his team has had “our share of cancellations,” but declined to give specifics.

Representatives from other downtown hotels did not return calls for comment, but national booking agents for major hotel chains said there’s been noticeable impact.

“I’m canceling from all up and down the Eastern Seaboard, all for reservations from [Monday night] on,” said Melissa Salts, a reservation agent for Marriott International Inc.’s central booking services. “A lot of conferences and conventions and whatnot have been canceled. And once a person’s flight is canceled, of course their hotel needs to be, too.”

But the storm might not wreak total havoc on hoteliers. Salts said she has noticed families interested in booking rooms because it’s more likely they’d have electricity in a hotel than in their homes.

And Coffey said some guests at the Harbor Court have asked to increase the length of their stay rather than face the weather.

“The feedback we’ve received is that folks are better off staying with us because there’s not many options for them to get out of the city,” Coffey said, adding that it’s too early to tell whether these extensions will offset the cancellations.

The Baltimore Convention Center should have been bustling with activity Monday morning for the kickoff of a week-long series of events organized by Out and Equal, an LGBT rights organization based in San Francisco.

But to the dismay of organizers and attendees, crowds weren’t nearly the size everyone said they had been hoping for. Because turnout was so low, Out and Equal organizers had to restructure many of the planned activities, said Chief Marketing Officer Teddy Witherington.

They combined several of the planned sessions into one workshop because there weren’t enough people to fill all the scheduled break-out groups. They also canceled all programming scheduled for Tuesday, as well as Monday night’s reception.

Only about half of the expected 300 attendees made it to the convention center on Monday, Witherington said. For the entire week, he said they originally anticipated about 2,200 people, but now they only expect a fraction of those to show up.

“Everything is on hold until Sandy moves off,” he said. “So we’ll see. If things clear earlier, we’ll have a higher attendance. It depends on the airlines, as well — when they start flying again.”

Organizers have been coordinating with city officials to monitor weather conditions and plan accordingly, he said.

‘We can’t put our movement on hold because of the weather’

Those at the convention center Monday said they felt lucky to arrive when they did, because their commutes weren’t difficult. Lance Freedman, who works for Lockheed Martin Corp., said he flew in from Buffalo without any problems.

“It wasn’t anything to write home about,” Freedman said. “I know a lot of my colleagues though, had issues with flight cancellations. But I think everyone wants to be here. I hope it’s all just overblown.”

Denise Sudell, a senior policy advisor at the Civil Rights Center with the Department of Labor, said her drive up from Washington was uneventful, adding that she’s more concerned about getting home.

The drop-off in attendance disappointed those who had arrived on time, several said.

“There’s definitely a big noticeable difference,” said Debby Morris, an employee of the Veterans Administration who has attended the summit for the past three years. Morris said she regretting having so many fewer participants in the sessions, because the event usually is very helpful and enjoyable.

“This is unlike many other annual events or trade shows because this annual event is about a movement towards workplace equality for LGBT people,” Witherington said. “We have to do everything we can. We can’t put our movement on hold for a year because of the weather.”

The tourists who did arrive in the city will have slimmer pickings for restaurants — if they even want to venture beyond their hotels. Many have already closed for the day and don’t plan to open Tuesday, either.

But because business owners don’t want to keep their customers in the dark, even if the power goes out, many are announcing updates via Twitter, which can be accessed on a smartphone.

Towson Hot Bagels, for instance, tweeted: “..YES WE ARE OPEN !!!! TOWSON TIMONIUM CANTON” on Monday morning.

And Blue Agave Restaurant in Federal Hill told Twitter followers the restaurant will be open during normal hours Monday as long as power is still on. The Mexican restaurant’s tweets included: “luckily the staff lives directly above the restaurant” and “We will be serving Brunch today!!! Why not, nothing else to do!!”