Baltimore Moves on From Unrest

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0909_CLweb_BaltimoremugWhen riots broke out in the days following the death of African-American Freddie Gray, Visit Baltimore CEO and President Tom Noonan shifted the CVB’s focus from tourism to crisis management. In the end, the two major meetings—including the Food Safety Summit—in town went off smoothly, and only one event was forced to cancel. Nearly five months later, Gray’s parents reached a $6.4 million settlement this week with the city, which appears firmly on its way to rebounding from one of its darkest chapters. Noonan, who’s held his post for more than eight years, spoke to us about the troubling days in late April, how other cities should prepare for emergencies and the beginning of what he says is an inspirational period for Baltimore. The riots seemed to come out of nowhere, didn’t they? If you talked to me a month before the incidents took place, I would have told you we had 24 million tourists last year, more conventions than at any [other] time in our history and a new advertising campaign coming; things are great. What could possibly go wrong? How were you prepared for the unexpected? You see Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy take place, and I realized we probably needed a better emergency plan than we had. A couple of years ago, we created a crisis communicants playbook. We hired Donna Karl Sakelakos, who wrote the New Orleans crisis book after Katrina. She knows her stuff and it was nice to hire someone who’d done it before versus taking someone from our staff out of their normal job. 0909_CLweb_BaltimoreQ&AWhat’s in that playbook? It’s 2 or 3 inches thick—a 50-page syllabus for a crisis. It has the mayor’s cellphone number and address, same for the chief of police, and a list of pharmacies and hospitals. It’s flexible enough that if we had a power grid failure, we’d quickly know what hotels might have availability for those affected. Having that plan changed Visit Baltimore’s ranking from level 3 to level 1 for when a crisis takes place. How important was having that emergency plan? I’d recommend any CVB, hotel and event have a crisis plan. You might not use it the first four years you have it, but you will the fifth. It’s going to happen. It’s not a matter of if, but when. What was the most important aspect of your reaction to the crisis? We recognized what we needed most was information as it was unfolding. We picked up the phone and called all our members. We put up what we call our dark site on the website with information about [how] to reach us. We became a customer service firm for planners. How concerned were you about the safety of ongoing conventions in town? When the National Guard came in, I’m not sure there was any safer city. We felt perfectly safe downtown; the incidents were not in the typical tourism district. That’s important to note going forward—that downtown was not under much threat—isn’t it? It was important to show advisory boards where the unrest took place. They saw where the CVS burned down and reported back the distance to the Inner Harbor to attendees. They could see it for themselves. [inlinead align="left"]"You find out you’re not alone and who your friends are."[/inlinead] What else have you done to pitch Baltimore since the incidents? I talked to two groups of citywide convention customers, one in D.C. and one in Chicago. The customers said, ‘We love you. There’s no need to apologize. It could happen anywhere.’ You find out you’re not alone and who your friends are. Is there any good that can come out of such a terrible experience? It’s interesting to see the city come together like it has. Everybody is rowing in the same direction. We’re trying to create the aspirational “One Baltimore,” asking how we can help those neighborhoods that haven’t had any in a while. That’s going to be one of the great things coming out of this. Maybe it will be the playbook for all cities: This is what you need to prevent these types of tragedies and unrest from happening in your city.