Tom Noonan raised his wine glass as the aroma of lamb and onions drifted from the kitchen toward his guests. In Manhattan's trendy Culinary Loft on a warm April evening, the Baltimore tourism honcho was boasting about the city's thriving restaurant scene to a dozen food and travel writers.
"New restaurants are opening all the time," he gushed in his slight Midwestern accent, "and the culinary scene is booming."
Noonan and his team had brought other ammo, too: Two of the city's most inspired chefs—Spike Gjerde, chef/owner of Woodberry Kitchen, and Timothy Dean, chef/owner of Timothy Dean Bistro—came to the exclusive SoHo special events kitchen to cook for the food and travel writers, most of whom admitted they had not visited Baltimore in many years.
Writers from publications like Town and Country, Forbes, Food Arts, and GoAirTran enjoyed Dean's macaroni and cheese with lobster and Gjerde's lamb and goat cheese dumplings. Several months earlier, a similar group of journalists visited Baltimore on the city's dime and dined at several popular restaurants.
As president and CEO of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association (BACVA), it's Noonan's job to sell the city. And the gig has its perks. The night before the chefs' dinner, Noonan and his team took in a preview of the Baltimore-set Broadway show Cry-Baby and dined with a writer from The New Yorker, who chronicled the evening in the "Talk of the Town" column.
Writer Michael Schulman took the usual potshots at Charm City, leading off with "Baltimore—famous for its harbor, its crab cakes, and its drug trade." But the BACVA folks came off in the column as having a sense of humor about their quirky, authentic town, which is exactly what the Baltimore team wanted.
During his 18 months on the job, Noonan has established an impressive record of accomplishments. Some say it wouldn't be too difficult to outshine his recent predecessors, in particular, Leslie Doggett, who led the tourism bureau from July 2003 to May 2006. Health problems and an apparent unwillingness to network—something integral to the role—led to her departure from the $180,000-a-year post.
On Noonan's watch, on the other hand, bookings went up eight percent in fiscal year 2007, with the sales team meeting its targets for the first time in years, which, besides benefiting the city, contributes to BACVA's $11 million budget, which comes mostly from hotel occupancy tax revenues.
Visits to the BACVA website in all of 2007 were up 20 percent from the previous year, according to the association. BACVA has booked some prestigious meetings, including Tradeshow Week's Fastest 50 trade show this November, and the Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum for March 2008 and March 2009. All that, and numerous creative marketing initiatives have been launched, winning Noonan the support of board members and city politicians who in the past were clearly frustrated by the underwhelming parade of tourism chiefs.
Baltimore restaurateur and mega-caterer Eddie Dopkin, who serves on BACVA's board and was on the search committee that chose Noonan, has nothing but praise for his work thus far.
"Tom is full of energy and vigor," says Dopkin, who is an owner of The Classic Catering People and several restaurants. "He thinks outside the box. He takes a situation and evaluates it like it's a puzzle."
"He's a breath of fresh air," says fellow board member Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership. As soon as Noonan started attending meetings around the city, he says, "It signaled that it was a new day at BACVA."
A longtime civic activist and observer of BACVA before joining the board, Fowler notes that the bureau seemed to stagnate during the late 1990s. "The agency didn't seem to have a sense of urgency as it does now," he says. "And I think, in a sense, we're paying for some of those earlier decisions in terms of convention business."
Noonan, 43, came to BACVA after an 18-year stint with the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, most recently as senior vice president of sales and services. He worked out of Washington, D.C., so he was familiar with this market.
One of 10 children reared in Minnesota, the robust and talkative Noonan—who came across in an interview as a bit overbearing at first, then seemed to relax—says he has always been very social, which makes him a natural for tourism marketing. His father, David Noonan, has long headed up the 7,000-member American Academy of Ophthalmology, so Tom Noonan was exposed early on to the meetings and conventions industry.
You can't learn much about the man by looking around his office—it's spotless except for a few pictures of his wife, Mindy, and some sports memorabilia (he's an avid golfer)—but John Graham, president of the 23,000-member American Society of Association Executives, or ASAE, says Noonan's confidence, credibility, and gregarious nature are huge assets, and among the reasons why the influential association of meeting planners recently agreed on a strategic partnership with BACVA. "The hospitality business, by definition, is a relationship business," he says, and Noonan is highly regarded for his integrity.
Negotiating a meeting contract with a convention bureau "is a little bit like a prenuptial agreement," says Graham. "You want to feel that they mean what they say, that they'll be there for you, and that if something goes wrong, they'll fix it."
Among Noonan's innovations is a three-city partnership that's rare in the industry. His colleagues in Sacramento and Fort Worth, with whom Baltimore does not compete for bookings, have agreed to promote Baltimore as a destination when prospects say they want to hold their meeting in a different part of the country. BACVA does the same for them. In addition, they share a sales team.
Within the Mid-Atlantic region, Baltimore has a lot of stiff competition. New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Pittsburgh are all attractive venues, with much to offer visitors. Add to the mix the brand-new Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Prince George's County—billing itself as the East Coast's largest non-gaming convention center and hotel, with 2,000 rooms and 470,000 square feet of meeting space—and the challenge becomes even more formidable.
So Noonan must focus on knowing what makes Baltimore distinctive and marketing it well to groups that would appreciate those features.
Graham, of the ASAE, notes that after the initial excitement about the Inner Harbor died down in the early '90s, there was a kind of "now what?" dilemma for the city. Out-of-towners who felt they had "done" Baltimore because they had been to Harborplace and the National Aquarium needed a compelling reason to return, he says, and the city's marketers did not always provide one.
"That's how Tom is different," says Graham. "He's creative and aggressive, and he's a rising star among his colleagues in terms of his ability to understand the assets of the city and market them effectively."
David DuBois, who knew Noonan from his time in Texas, calls him "an outstanding relationship builder." During their 20-year friendship, he says, they have often discussed how their strong personalities have helped them succeed in business, but not necessarily in their personal relationships.
"We have talked about focusing our Type-A personalities into being more patient and listening more," says DuBois. "He has matured. He's still aggressive and passionate, but he's a better listener."
A few months after moving here—he bought a home in Canton just before starting the job in January 2007—Noonan married for the first time. Wife Mindy is a public relations professional in Washington, D.C.
As a newcomer, he was able to notice things many longtime Baltimoreans take for granted. The vibrant restaurant scene, for one, which he and Mindy enjoy every chance they get. And the fact that it's a very walkable city.
That observation led to BACVA's recent ad campaign featuring the headline, "In Baltimore, you're two feet away from everything."
Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore City Council president and a BACVA board member, says she is thrilled to have someone with Noonan's depth of industry knowledge on board.
"He's aggressive, he's innovative, and I would say, relentless," Rawlings-Blake says. "I know that in order for us to be able to compete, those are the qualities we need."
She says she is especially pleased with Noonan's ability to convince the business community that their 20-year investment in Baltimore's tourism and convention industry brings significant economic benefit to the city.
Conceived during the administration of Mayor William Donald Schaefer, the Convention Center was completed in 1979 at a cost of $51.4 million. Eighteen years later, a controversial $151 million expansion was completed to triple the square footage, on promises that huge convention business would follow. But that never happened.
But few disagree that tourism remains critical to the health of the city.
"When you're allocating resources, you can't ignore the impact of the convention and tourism industry," says Rawlings-Blake. "Now that he's here, we're reminded on a regular basis how important that is."
Shortly after starting on the job, Noonan commissioned research to confirm his hunches about what needed to be done.
"I didn't want to be the new guy who comes in and says, 'Let's do this.' "
A survey of BACVA stakeholders led to the decision to bring the Baltimore Convention Center (BCC) operation under the BACVA umbrella, with a joint board overseeing both of them. As a result, Peggy Daidakis, longtime BCC executive director, will report directly to Noonan instead of to Mayor Sheila Dixon, a change that should better ensure that the right hand knows what the left is doing.
The point was that because the two organizations have such common goals, they should work in tandem instead of separately. And Noonan believes if the city develops a reputation as a great destination for leisure travel, the meetings will naturally follow.
"Great tourism cities are great convention cities," he says, with San Antonio as a good example.
Sure enough, a marketing study conducted about two years ago found a huge gap between the survey sample's perceptions of Baltimore and the reality. One such misunderstanding was that the city lacked high-quality art museums—actually, they just didn't know they were here.
"That just shows you why marketing is key," the Downtown Partnership's Fowler says.
The BACVA survey also revealed a need to plump up the sales staff with veteran marketers toting fat Rolodexes. BACVA hired experienced salespeople from big cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago, increasing the sales staff from eight to 12. "And they are moving the needle," he says.
And BACVA, whose budget is inextricably tied to hotel occupancy tax receipts, is increasing revenues through strategic partnerships with Old Bay Seasoning and other companies.
BACVA uses various tools to assess how the city compares with other East Coast destinations, and it makes sales projections accordingly. This year, for example, Noonan says, the city is on track to exceed the projection of 400,000 hotel room-nights booked. That does not take into account the 757 rooms at the new Hilton Hotel, slated to open this month, which is connected to the center by an enclosed sky bridge.
The city-owned Hilton supplies a long-missing piece of the puzzle for meeting sales. "We needed an attached headquarters hotel like the Hilton," Noonan says.
In the past couple of years, the number of hotel rooms in the city has skyrocketed from 6,000 to nearly 10,000—a mixed blessing, to be sure. "Most cities in America would kill for what we're doing [with hotels]," says Noonan. "If anything, I'm concerned that we've gone too quickly."
Other initiatives under way are increased efforts to market to the African-American, Hispanic, and gay and lesbian communities, and a push to promote the city as a culinary and cultural destination.
With multiple stakeholders in the mix, some with competing interests, Noonan can't please all the people, all the time. But he wins points for being balanced in his efforts.
Noonan says he has received tremendous support from the BACVA board, which has seen the organization undergo a lot of transition in recent years.
First Mariner Bank founder and BACVA board chairman Ed Hale, a critic of some of Noonan's predecessors, says he expects Noonan to remain in the job long after his three-year contract is up in 2010. Says Hale, "I think he hasn't even begun to hit his potential."