Historic. Picturesque. Quaint. Charming.
The chattering classes that descended on Annapolis for the Middle East peace conference relied on such doting adjectives as much as video images of the choppy Severn River and giant trees in full fall splendor.
Reporters around the world gushed in the run-up to Tuesday’s talks about the brick roads of the state’s colonial capital, its colorful 300-year-old rowhouses and celebrated status in sailing circles. For anyone unfamiliar with the terrain, it might have seemed plucked from a children’s storybook.
Even as pundits debate the success of the Annapolis conference, the city could emerge as an early and obvious winner. With Annapolis already one of the leading tourist destinations in the state, local marketing officials say they hope to increase the nearly $2 billion spent annually on tourism and capitalize on the vast, albeit temporary, worldwide exposure.
“It’s priceless,” said Connie Del Signore, president and CEO of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau. “It’s what we all hoped for, and we were able to give an international audience some perspective on why the conference was held here … Now, how that translates into dollars will be anybody’s guess at this point.”
National experts on developing destination brands cautioned against expecting much of a boon later from media coverage that will largely be remembered by the success or failure of the peace conference – not the city that was its host. Some noted that the city’s name could become synonymous with failure or even violence if peace isn’t reached, almost like the name “Katrina” will forever evoke images of desperation and government ineptitude.
“They can’t do much unless whatever agreement that comes out of this conference begins to show some results,” said Liping A. Cai, director of Purdue University’s Tourism and Hospitality Research Center. “Their selling points now are the water and the Naval Academy, so how they tie in the conference with those existing signature items, that’s quite a challenge.”
Bill Baker, an international tourism consultant and author of Destination Branding for Small Cities, said the exposure the city got didn’t look strong enough to give tourism a boost in the long term.
“It seemed like a very limited mention of Annapolis, but those associations that did come up, like sailing and other things, it’s certainly possible to capitalize on that.”
The immediate impact of the conference was a spike in business for restaurants and hotels, which saw occupancy rates jump 10 to 15 percent during a low point of the year for tourism.
A visit stemming from media coverage is far from unheard of, said Susan Steckman, communications director of the city and county’s tourism office. At least one visitor came to Annapolis weeks ago after the city was named in September as one of the top nine waterfront towns in the United States by National Geographic’s Adventure magazine.
“So if somebody’s going to come here because they read about it in National Geographic, they could certainly come after hearing so much about it on national and world news,” she said.
Her office’s effort to gain from the exposure began well before the satellite trucks streamed into town Monday evening. Del Signore and other local officials early in the month set up evergreen stories for outlets like Voice of America, replete with bullet points they and others would repeat dozens of times in the coming days.
Those included references to the city as a fitting site for peace talks, since it once served as the capital for a fledgling United States and the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War was ratified here. That could appeal to the history-buff tourists who sign up for guided tours of taverns where George Washington had a pint.
Nods to Annapolis’ nickname of “America’s Sailing Capital,” could bring more of the yachting set, arguably one of the city’s most important economic engines.
And they pushed the city’s two very different colleges: St. John’s, a small liberal arts institution known for its teaching of the classics, and the Naval Academy, host of the peace talks, which already hauls as many as 2 million visitors annually, by some estimates.
Every one of these talking points drew numerous mentions in print, radio and TV reportage leading up to the conference. Local tourism officials eagerly reiterated them to a captive audience of hundreds of reporters as they waited in line for hours to get credentials to cover the conference or paused in the academy’s Alumni Hall. In turn, the reporters repeated them as they filed their stories for TV, with the waterfront behind them.
“I’m sure we’re going to be doing a lot to make hay of this,” said Margot Amelia, executive director of the state’s office of tourism. “We can market to international visitors … We can say, you saw it on television, now come and experience it firsthand.”