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University of Texas El Paso students, Katie Salinas, left, Estefania Vazquez and Carlos Munoz take a group selfie at the Baltimore Inner Harbor while sightseeing after a weekend conference with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers in 2015. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Tourism officials: Baltimore’s perception better nationally

While Baltimore’s image has improved nationally, the city’s perception within the immediate metro area has yet to rise to pre-Freddie Gray levels, tourism officials said Monday.

The National Aquarium, for example, has seen a 7 percent decrease in attendance since the protests and riots erupted in across the city in April following the death of Freddie Gray. That’s on top of a 4 percent increase the aquarium was experiencing prior to the unrest.

But looking deeper at the ZIP codes of the people who visited the aquarium this year, officials found that visitors from Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. were meeting if not exceeding pre-civil unrest levels.

A family visiting Baltimore from India takes photos by the national Aquarium with the Hyatt Regency hotel and the USS Constellation in the Backgroud.  (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

A family visiting Baltimore from India takes photos by the National Aquarium, with the Hyatt Regency hotel and the USS Constellation in the background. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

“It is the Baltimore market that is really pulling down our business,” said Margot Amelia, the National Aquarium’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer.

Amelia was a part of a panel on the state of tourism in the city hosted by the Greater Baltimore Committee at its offices Monday morning. The panel discussed the challenges facing Baltimore’s tourism industry to the ways the industry is changing.

Within the Baltimore metro area’s sports market, professional sports are doing well, largely because people feel safe in the stadiums, said Terry Hasseltine of the Maryland Stadium Authority. The challenge is with keeping up with amateur sports, including youth sports tournaments, which make up 82 percent of the region’s sports revenue, he said.

“We have one of the greatest packages in the world to sell,” he said.

At its annual meeting in August, Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism marketing arm, said hotel occupancy decreased after the unrest. Last month, the organization reported hotel occupancy was down 5-to-7 percent since April, while attendance at museums, restaurants and other attractions is down 10-to-20 percent.

But Visit Baltimore’s Chief Marketing Officer Sam Rogers said Monday that hotel occupancy was up 12 percent in October and projections for November are looking good. Rogers also said the city is “running ahead of pace” for room bookings for future years. Organizations have booked hotel rooms through 2032, officials have said.

Some 60 percent of the city’s visitors come from business trips or to attend conventions. The other 40 percent are tourists visiting the city or friends and family, said Rogers.

To increase hotel occupancy rates and attendance at city attractions, Visit Baltimore relaunched its “Meet Local” campaign last month to encourage area residents and business owners to hold their next event in the city. The campaign places the local hospitality industry’s 82,000 employees at the forefront. Those workers contribute a reported $2.7 billion to the economy in salaries earned.

Kevin Kennedy, general manager of the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore, said the hotel has already faced two cancellations for April 2016, which will mark one year since the riots.

“It’s an interesting time in our business…meeting planners, they love Baltimore,” said Kennedy. “Attendees have CNN vision in their minds.”