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Tourist Trap

By Russ Smith | Posted 11/16/2005

Talk about scams. Martin O’Malley has more important matters on his mind right now—leading a big city while simultaneously running for governor—so it’s unlikely he was intimately involved in forking over $500,000 to Landor Associates to “re-brand” Baltimore. It’s not a lot of money, relatively speaking, but the mayor’s chief of staff Clarence Bishop—also Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association (BACVA) chairman—ought to be questioned for his gullibility.

Landor’s Susan Palombo reportedly told O’Malley that “the perception of Baltimore is very bad,” according to her focus groups of potential tourists and convention planners. It’s her job to secure clients, and if she can convince city officials that Americans are afraid to travel here because of superb television shows like Homicide and The Wire, more power to her. The city’s well-publicized murder rate certainly isn’t a draw, but it’s not as if the bulk of the crimes, many drug-related, are occurring in tourist destinations.

The Sun quoted Bishop Nov. 8 saying that “It’s obviously important to have the right and best brand because the competition for [conventions] is ferocious. We have to differentiate ourselves from Washington, D.C., and other competitors.” It’s reassuring to know, I suppose, that Bishop understands Baltimore will never compete with New York, Las Vegas, and San Francisco, say, as a first-tier tourist destination, but that he buys into Landor’s “branding” mumbo jumbo says to me that the fellow has too much time on his hands.

There’s nothing wrong with promoting Baltimore as “Charm City”; it’s a nickname that was very successful in far bleaker economic times in the city and still has the advantage of being both innocuous but true. It’s certainly preferable to the unlamented “The City That Reads” that Kurt Schmoke pushed, leading inevitably to “The City That Breeds” and “The City That Bleeds.”

If O’Malley and Bishop really want to increase tourism, they’d advocate the construction of a glamorous casino near the Inner Harbor—a measure that would attract out-of-state visitors and their dollars, and create jobs—then pay Bruce Springsteen a small gratuity and dub Baltimore “Lucky Town.”

On rare occasions, catchy slogans really can be beneficial for a city or region. The most successful in the past generation was the ubiquitous advertising campaign featuring celebrities saying (or singing) “I Love New York.” But there’s no comparison between New York in the late ’70s and today’s Baltimore. New York was barely recovering from near-bankruptcy back then, the streets were filled with garbage, “Son of Sam” terrorized the city, and hardly a week passed without a union shutting down basic municipal services.

In contrast, Baltimore, despite the drug traffic and homicides (common to any big city), is one huge construction site, with hotels, expensive condominium projects, and large retailers all looking to cash in on a prosperous local economy. Take a walk in Charles Village, for example, where a new Barnes and Noble near Johns Hopkins University will open next fall, in a building that will also feature retail shops and student housing, and you can see that venture capitalists aren’t put off by Homicide. And it’s inevitable that the boarded-up storefronts that now define the area in and around St. Paul and 25th streets (hardly a treacherous neighborhood) will be replaced by a few of the chain stores that city residents now travel to the suburbs for.

Landor’s pessimistic assessment of Baltimore is also a bit confusing if you remember the stories just last May when the travel guide Frommer’s called the city one of the summer’s Top 10 destinations. That was way over the top: This may be “The Land of Pleasant Living,” but grouping Baltimore with Barcelona, Puerto Rico, Belize, and Vietnam for an unusual vacation is sheer hyperbole. When the Frommer’s accolade was announced, BACVA President Leslie Doggett, with no mention of “branding,” said: “It’s amazing. I’ve always said Baltimore is America’s best kept secret. Apparently it’s also the world’s best kept secret.”

How this city has gone from a recommended travel destination to a scary sibling of Newark, N.J., in a matter of months is a fitting topic for a long essay (if not book) about the underbelly of public relations.

Baltimore, one of the country’s oldest and most significant historic cities, doesn’t need a new jingle to sell itself to tourists. In addition to the Inner Harbor and a Major League Baseball team—a rejuvenated franchise, by the way, would be more helpful than Landor’s expertise—the city really is an architectural wonder, and its peculiar, fascinating neighborhoods are a draw for any tourist who’s had his or her fill of Harborplace or the ESPN Zone.

The Sun printed an editorial Nov. 8 (“Excess Request”) that, without mentioning the Landor boondoggle, effectively refuted the company’s contention that Baltimore has gone to seed. Taking the developers of a Four Seasons hotel/condo building to task for requesting public financing, the paper correctly noted that Inner Harbor projects no longer need incentives from the city. “The public’s money should be reserved for projects,” the paper said, “that can extend the city renaissance beyond downtown. It should benefit projects that can leverage private investment for new housing, business development, and job creation.”

O’Malley and his staff should consider those words before falling further into the spider’s web of “global repositioning” spun by companies like Landor.

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