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Tourism, conference turnout surpass Visit Baltimore’s FY21 goals

Al Hutchinson, CEO of Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism bureau, speaks at the organization’s annual meeting Thursday at the B&O Railroad Museum. (The Daily Record/Johanna Alonso)

Tourism in Baltimore had a stronger-than-anticipated year, surpassing goals for hotel occupancy and conferences that Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism bureau, set just a few months into the pandemic. While the statistics pale compared to the numbers reported prior to the pandemic, they nonetheless reflect an uptick in one of Baltimore’s vital economic activities.

According to Visit Baltimore’s annual report for FY21, the city surpassed its “room night goal,” which includes hotel rooms occupied during single-hotel meetings or conferences, by about 20%. Its lead generation goal, which refers to how many organizations or conferences reached out to indicate that they were interested in potentially basing their event, conference or meeting in Baltimore, was also higher than expected by about 0.4%. 

Finally, the Baltimore Convention Center hosted 20 large events, one more than the tourism board’s goal. 

Of the events and conferences booked in FY21, nearly 50% were held in that same fiscal year, with another 25% due for the following year. This is important to recovery, said Dustin Arnheim, senior vice president of sales and customer experience at Visit Baltimore, because it offered a lifeline to struggling hotels, restaurants and retail spaces that couldn’t wait any longer for relief. 

October hotel occupancy in Baltimore was 54.6%, an increase of 71% year-over-year but still down 21% from October 2019‘s numbers, said Erik Evjen, director of data analytics and insights with Tourism Economics.

“We had a great impact (in the) short term,” said Arnheim. 

The goals themselves were well below the city’s pre-pandemic numbers. Arnheim said officials first set the goals in August 2020, based on the impact Visit Baltimore had been seeing on the tourism industry during the first few months of the pandemic. Visit Baltimore chose to increase the goals somewhat over the fiscal year, as the circumstances of the pandemic changed. 

Visit Baltimore held  its annual meeting Thursday at the B&O Railroad Museum, the first time the organization had gathered in two years. 

This push towards recovery comes after nearly two years of turbulence for Baltimore’s tourism and hospitality industries, which, like restaurants, hotels and venues worldwide, were initially shuttered during COVID-19 and took longer than most industries to recover. In Baltimore specifically, tourism dropped 22% during FY2021, in contrast with steady increases over the previous five years, according to Visit Baltimore’s most recent annual report.   

It was an especially difficult adjustment considering the momentum that Visit Baltimore had picked up in recent years. FY20, despite being interrupted by COVID-19, was still a banner year for the organization, producing 37% more citywide events than it had in the previous year. It had also just completed a rebrand that featured an advertising campaign, a new website, and commercials during the Super Bowl and the Grammy Awards. 

Attempts over the past year to reinvigorate the travel industry during the pandemic have been dicey at best. Last year, Visit Baltimore had to cancel an advertising campaign into which they’d funneled several million dollars of CARES Act money months earlier, as COVID-19 cases in Maryland reached an all-time high and Baltimore shut down on-site restaurant dining and limited capacities for museums and retail establishments.  

But since the rollout of vaccines in the early months of 2021, the tourism industry has been improving nationwide, with hotel reservations, rental car bookings and flights surging to rates well above those of 2020. The surge of COVID-19 cases, caused by the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus, over this summer failed to slow down the demand for travel.

Most recently, the nation opened its borders to vaccinated travelers from a number of countries for the first time since March 2020, promising an increase in international travel. 

Baltimore, like cities nationwide, has reaped the benefits of this high demand. The greatest recovery the city has seen has been in leisure, which encompasses people enjoying sports, the arts, restaurants, retail and other attractions in their free time.  

Right now, “all destinations are surviving off of leisure business,” said Arnheim. “We’re really busy on the weekend.” 

The organization’s greatest focus, now, is on encouraging business travel, which supports Baltimore businesses during the weekdays. 

Tourism officials said the organization had a number of successful initiatives over the past year, such as the launch of its new Warm Welcome Program, which encourages hotels and other establishments in the city to be stronger allies to visitors from different backgrounds, and the Destinations International Annual Convention, which welcomed 900 people to Baltimore in July and was the largest event Visit Baltimore had hosted since 2019. 

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the job title and affiliation of Erik Evjen. He is the director of data analytics and insights with Tourism Economics.)