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Baltimore tourism industry tries to put riots in rear view mirror

The Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race, hosted by American Visionary Art Museum was canceled in early May due to unrest in the city, but is taking place Sunday, June 14.
Source: Rich Wilke | KineticBaltimore.com
The Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race, hosted by American Visionary Art Museum was canceled in early May due to unrest in the city, but is taking place Sunday, June 14.

In the wake of months of unrest and a record month of murders, Baltimore may be a tough sell to potential vacationers as a destination for care-free summer fun.

That won't stop hotels, restaurants, attractions and city officials in Charm City, who insist they are up for the challenge.

For Baltimore's economy, the stakes are high. About 80,000 local jobs are dependent on the tourism industry, and close to 24 million tourists visited the city and spent $5.15 billion in 2013, a 2.2 percent increase in visitor spending over the year before.

What happened in Baltimore "is not a secret," said Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, "Who in the U.S. didn't see the images on TV? But now we need to keep people informed and work on winning confidence back."

One way officials are doing that is with a hard-to-miss "What do I need to know?" button on the Visit Baltimore website, and a FAQ section that addresses issues of safety and security in the city.

Bad news abounds, but a few green shoots

"The once cartel-ridden, murder-capital of Medellin, Columbia—a city with far greater problems and far fewer assets than Baltimore – went on to transcend its past to become International City of The Year." -Rebecca Alban Hoffenberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore

In ways big and small, the tumultuous aftermath of April and May's unrest—sparked by the April 12 death of Freddie Gray in police custody—is still being felt.

"To date, the Maryland Science Center's (http://www.mdsci.org/) losses exceed $200,000," spokesman Christopher Cropper told CNBC. "But this past weekend was the first one in which our general admission was the same as it was in the prior year."

However, "all our programs are still in place, our summer camp enrollments are strong, and all special events remain on the calendar," Cropper said.

Over at the eclectic American Visionary Art Museum, near Baltimore's scenic harbor area, optimism prevails despite the rough stretch.

"The bad news is that post-protests, all Inner Harbor attractions are down in attendance," said museum founder and director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger. During the summer months, the AVM hosts a slew of events.

"But the good news is that of our museum's 100-plus weddings, none have canceled, our Kinetic Sculpture Race is back on and our free summer outdoor film series is on, as well," she added.

While the city lost at least one major city wide convention (the Doors and Hardware Institute) due to the riots, convention bookings remain steady, Noonan said, but there's been slippage in pure tourism.

"If you're that family of four who live in the region and you have choices, are we high on your list right now? I'm not so sure about that," Noonan said.

Tourism officials hope for an uptick in 2014 visitor numbers, thanks to last year's 10-day-long Star Spangled Spectacular celebrating the 200th anniversary of the country's national anthem, and the Baltimore Orioles win of the American East championship.

However, even though the peak summer travel season is only just beginning, there's still a lot of damage to be undone.

"Hotel occupancies in March and April declined, and it will probably take a few months for the industry to recover to prior levels and make up for the poor publicity the city received," said Jan Freitag, senior vice president at STR, a hotel and hospitality research firm.

"This summer we would expect room rates on par with last year, but it is certainly possible that hoteliers may discount room rates to spur demand," he added.

The next Medellin?

A protester holds a sign as clouds of smoke and crowd control agents rise, shortly after the deadline for a city-wide curfew passed in Baltimore, Maryland April 28, 2015, as crowds protest the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody.
Eric Thayer | Reuters
A protester holds a sign as clouds of smoke and crowd control agents rise, shortly after the deadline for a city-wide curfew passed in Baltimore, Maryland April 28, 2015, as crowds protest the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody.

Rather than lower room rates, some hotels have created partnerships and special packages that benefit nonprofits in the city.

Hampton Inn & Suites Baltimore Inner Harbor is donating 10 percent of the proceeds from a summer-long Best of Baltimore package to the food bank, in addition to helping to gather food pantry donations.

Separately, the local Red Cross chapter will benefit from a package offered by the Residence Inn Baltimore Downtown Inner Harbor, part of the Marriott chain.

In planning for the Aug. 1 grand opening of Hotel RL Baltimore Inner Harbor, the first hotel of a new brand being rolled out nationally by the Red Lion Hotels Corp. (RHLC), "we've had to be extremely sensitive to the timing of our announcements," said company president and CEO, Greg Mount.

With Baltimore's Health Care for the Homeless, RLHC has created Project Wake Up Call: Baltimore Uncovered to raise awareness and funds. Mount says that effort is "more relevant than ever" in light of the city's turmoil.

Those who donate $100 to the nonprofit by Aug. 1 through the special website will receive an offer to stay at the new hotel for one night.

"The once cartel-ridden, murder capital of Medellin, Colombia—a city with far greater problems and far fewer assets than Baltimore—went on to transcend its past to become International City of The Year," said AVAM's Hoffenberger. Baltimore "has the creativity and the good will to unite, rebound and heal."

—Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas . Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.