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Baltimore’s Convention Center Draws Strange Groups

August 4, 1991

BALTIMORE (AP) _ Funeral directors brought the latest in afterlife fashion - a King Tut- style casket. Bowlers toppled pins round-the-clock. One society of gardeners spent a weekend discussing weeds.

Attendance at Baltimore’s convention center has more than tripled in the last decade, boosted in part by the annual gatherings of obscure and eccentric groups ranging from the American Sod Producers to the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine.

″There is a certain tolerance for weirdos in this city, but I really don’t know why conventions come here,″ said film director John Waters, a Baltimore resident whose offbeat films include ″Hair Spray″ and ″Pink Flamingos.″

″Usually, all these horror conventions ask me to speak. I don’t know why they ask me.″

Nonetheless, the city should promote its unique character as much as its facilities, Waters said.

″What the Chamber of Commerce is always pushing is the wrong thing,″ he said. ″They should say, ‘Come to Baltimore and be shocked.’ That should be their campaign. Play up the eccentricity, that’s what the city does the best. And I mean that in a good way because I don’t think you can fake that.″

The National Funeral Directors Association came to town in 1989 sporting the latest in caskets, including one shaped like Egyptian pharaoh King Tut’s sarcophagus.

″What was so wonderful about the funeral directors is, yes, they have a sense of humor, but they also spend a lot of money,″ said Kristy Sexton of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitor’s Center.

″Some religious groups come in and they are on real tight budgets.″

The convention center and its surrounding 5,300 hotel rooms make Baltimore attractive as one of the country’s second-tier convention destinations, Sexton said.

Convention officials allowed lanes to be set up in the center so a national bowlers’ group could knock down pins non-stop.

Other visitors have included the Weed Society of America, the Jack and Jill Club, a mother’s group; and the Great American Firehouse Exposition and Muster, a firefighters’ convention in town last week.

Attendance has increased steadily since the city opened its convention center in 1979. In 1980, 107,000 people attended conventions and spent $43 million. Last year, about 350,000 delegates attended conventions, meetings and trade shows, tourism officials said.

″I don’t think we are any different, but we do have some unique offerings that make it a fun place to go, so fun groups come here,″ said Kitty Ratcliff, marketing director at the visitors’ association.

Baltimore’s biggest attraction remains its redeveloped Inner Harbor. But conventioneers are discovering Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, Babe Ruth’s birthplace and a downtown clock tower emblazoned with the words ″Bromo Seltzer″ on its face.

″The city is kind of a sleeper,″ said DeAnn Scrabeck, director of meetings for the Milwaukee-based National Funeral Directors Association. She said nearly 5,000 people attended the group’s convention here.

″People remember what Baltimore was 20 years ago. If they did their homework they realized it’s very different. ... I don’t think people expected what they got.″

Terry Berkowitz, marketing and membership director for the American Sod Producers Association, said her group’s convention in Baltimore was also a big hit.

″It was a beautiful city,″ she said. ″We were there in 1988 and our members enjoyed it. It was our best attended summer convention.″

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