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A display of advertisements from the My B-More campaign are displayed during the launch party at the Visit Baltimore office April 2. (Photo by Maximilian Franz / The Daily Record)

Baltimore tourism officials point to promising signs

As they work to rebuild the city’s image following April’s riots, Baltimore tourism officials could look back — and forward — to some good news.

In 2014, 24.5 million people visited Baltimore, an increase of 2.5 percent over the previous year, officials announced today. Visitors also spent a record $5.2 billion during their stay.

This year, the city is hosting conventions for 30 groups, also a record high, Visit Baltimore CEO and President Tom Noonan said Wednesday afternoon to a room at the Hippodrome packed with officials from area hotels, tourist attractions and City Hall.

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Spectators watch a performer at the Harborplace Ampitheater at the Inner Harbor. (File photo)

Last September’s Star Spangled Spectacular, a week-long event that celebrated the birthplace of the U.S. flag and national anthem, drew what Noonan called “Super Bowl-sized” crowds of around 1.43 million visitors from Sept. 10-16, making it the largest tourism week in the city’s history.

But April’s civil unrest served as a reminder there is work to be done to change the city’s reputation, officials said.

“We also must remind the world that Baltimore is a great city, with great assets and worth visiting,” said John Frisch, chairman of the Baltimore Convention and Tourism Board.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said tourism is at the forefront of her five-year economic plan.

“We must continue making investments in what works,” said Rawlings-Blake, adding that she wants to strengthen the presence of arts and entertainment in the city.

Five-year low

In fiscal 2015, the city saw a five-year low in hotel room reservations, which was attributed to April’s unrest.

About 424,000 rooms were booked in fiscal 2015 compared to around 461,000 in fiscal 2014. The highest number of room bookings in recent history was in fiscal 2010 at 495,000.

From March 28 to April 3 next year, the city is hosting what is being marketed as the “first large scale light festival in the U.S.”

The festival will have illuminated art displays in public spaces, concerts and light shows. Noonan said he hopes the event will boost the city’s hotel numbers.

Conventions rise

This year is going to be a record year for conventions in the city. In fiscal 2015, Visit Baltimore booked 398 events and more than 424,000 hotel rooms through 2032.

With so many conventions coming up, Noonan said the city needs to come up with a long term plan that will including plans for a new convention center to stay competitive against other cities. He said there haven’t been any “recent conversations” about a convention center expansion.

“Is it something we need to tackle in the next 5 years? Probably,” he said. “I think 20 years from now if we’re sitting in the same center that we have today, we probably made a mistake.”

During the awards portion of Wednesday’s event, Visit Baltimore gave its salesperson of the year award to Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore City branch of the NAACP, for bringing the NAACP 2017 Convention to the city.

Earlier this year, Visit Baltimore launched an ad campaign called “My Bmore,” featuring celebrities with ties to the city from Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. to rapper Common to Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank. Noonan said the campaign may add more celebrities this year.

Plank was awarded the William Donald Schaefer Baltimore Tourism Visionary Award for his plans to open a hotel in Fells Point, participation in the “Bmore” campaign and plans to build an urban campus in Port Covington.