This is part of our Better Baltimore series, which aims to use readers’ feedback and ideas to hold government agencies and powerful entities accountable. We’re also interested in stories about readers and communities driving change on their own. Have a tip? Tell us.
As the world started shutting down in March 2020, Al Hutchinson, CEO and president of Visit Baltimore, began to prepare for a seismic shift in the business of marketing Charm City to potential visitors.
The leader of the city’s tourism arm, a quasi-governmental agency, is responsible for “heads in beds,” or attracting visitors to spend time — and money— in Baltimore. Soon enough, the destination marketing specialist realized the work had hit a historic roadblock.
Like so many others during the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic, Hutchinson learned to pivot. Before the Baltimore Convention Center transformed into a field hospital, he and his team showed up to what events were left and distributed hand sanitizer. When stay-at-home orders went into effect, he helped connect small businesses with financial resources to keep the lights on. And as hotels bled revenue, he worked with them to improve their cleaning and sanitization procedures.
With an annual salary — funded primarily using city hotel tax proceeds — that exceeds $400,000 a year, Hutchinson views himself not as an expert in hospitality, leisure or travel, but as Baltimore’s top storyteller and salesman. What he’s selling: the city’s best and brightest experiences, people and places, even when things go wrong.
But questions about Hutchinson’s salary — which is higher than the mayor’s, the police commissioner’s and the city administrator’s — have surfaced during his tenure, he acknowledged. From the fiscal year that ended June 2018 to the fiscal year that ended in June 2020, he received a more than 60% salary increase, public records show. He currently is earning more than his predecessor, Tom Noonan, who received about $370,000 in fiscal year 2015 before departing Baltimore for Austin in 2016, public financial disclosure forms show. And as of June 2021, Hutchinson received more than $430,000 in total yearly compensation.
Some people, including a reader who contacted The Baltimore Banner, question Hutchinson’s high salary at a time when the tourism and hospitality sector have not fully recovered from the pandemic. Some city services — including the Visit Baltimore-managed Baltimore Visitor Center — have not returned to full capacity, with city officials citing revenue challenges.
Hutchinson and members of the tourism bureau’s board of directors said the salary reflects the demanding nature of the position in a challenging city to market. And as the director of a high-grossing nonprofit organization with more than 50 full-time and part-time employees, many said he should be earning more than government officials.
“I’m hired to do my job because of the economic impact that we provide to the city of Baltimore. Economics create job creation. And without Visit Baltimore, that funding stream would disappear,” Hutchinson said. “Those visitors would not be in Baltimore; they will go to another city, and those big events and conventions that would come to Baltimore would go to a different city.”
An analysis of other cities’ tourism bureaus shows that while Hutchinson earns less than tourism executives in such places as New York City, Nashville and Washington, D.C., he does eclipse bureau heads in cities including Richmond, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
‘The most challenging job’
City tourism had been trending upward for a decade before falling in 2020 when the pandemic hit, Baltimore budget data shows.
The recovery is continuing, Hutchinson said, and city officials say tourism-related funds rebounded to as much as 85% of pre-pandemic levels by the end of last year. Tourism brought in $2.7 billion in 2021, according to Visit Baltimore, with $90 million coming just from convention center events. The city anticipates more progress next year and expects to host as many as 25 million visitors in 2023, down from the peak of nearly 27 million that came in 2019 but up from the 21.4 million guests that traveled here in 2020, according to city budget documents.
Hutchinson arrived in Baltimore in 2016 following stints in Richmond, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Virginia Beach and Alabama. The Richmond native, who studied marketing as an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, said selling the city as a destination is not always easy work. He cited public relations headwinds created by the city’s myriad social ills, such as crime, violence and racial and economic inequality.
“This job in Baltimore has been the most challenging job I’ve had to date. However, it has also been the most rewarding to date,” he said. “And I say ‘challenging’ because Baltimore is a city with a lot of challenges and not as much resources to take care of some of these challenges.”
Hutchinson’s success hinges on his ability to get visitors to spend money in Baltimore, an idea that he said stands at a contrast to the daily experience of many city residents who struggle to pay their bills.
In the last six years, Hutchinson said, he has worked to bridge that divide. He cited Visit Baltimore’s workforce development and training programs that aim to create pipelines between the city’s youth and careers in hospitality, travel and dining; the launch of the city’s “Warm Welcome” program, which coaches local industry professionals in diversity, equity and inclusion; and the 2019 passage of the Baltimore Tourism Investment District, which adds a 2% surcharge on top of the city’s 9.5% hotel tax to offset the tax burden from residents.
Visit Baltimore also has undergone a strategic rebrand that seeks to tell a more positive story about the city and highlight the diversity of its residents. The team has placed ads in national publications such as The New York Times, secured billboard signage in other cities and have landed positive press in Forbes, Thrillist, Architectural Digest and others.
“We are the good-news organization,” Hutchinson said. “I should be talking about what’s happening that’s productive, that’s moving an amazing city like Baltimore that has its challenges, what’s moving us forward?”
Hutchinson is also credited with luring new events, including the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournament, which brought in nearly $20 million in total economic impact and about $2 million in state and local tax revenues in February, according to Visit Baltimore. The tournament is scheduled to run in Baltimore through 2025.
State and city officials said Baltimore tourism has contributed as much as 12% to state revenues in recent years and is vital to Maryland’s economic health.
“Al is to be commended for leading the charge in helping the recovery of our hospitality and tourism efforts as we came out of the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said in a statement. “He’s a major player in ensuring that the narrative of Baltimore doesn’t focus solely on our challenges, but also celebrates the true renaissance that is taking place here.”
‘Leadership, frankly, really matters’
Several city officials who are not authorized to comment publicly on Hutchinson’s salary said they considered him overpaid, especially given Baltimore’s other pressing needs and staff vacancies. They also pointed to Visit Baltimore’s latest annual report, which found that more than half of all visitors came to Baltimore because they had family or friends who lived here while only about 27% of visitors came after being influenced by marketing. Another 17% reported visiting Baltimore for business.
But others who work closely with him said they value his resumé, his relationships with national events planners and his emphasis on including more of the city in Visit Baltimore’s initiatives.
“What I would point to as part of growing his legacy is his effort to elevate Black tourism and extend the reach of tourism to all of Baltimore,” said John Frisch, a former Visit Baltimore board chairman. “He has a really strong commitment to showcase all of Baltimore’s richness and diversity to to attract a broader, richer and more diverse and inclusive set of tourism and business visitors to Baltimore.”
Frisch said the board typically uses salary studies to determine market rates for paying its executives. He said Baltimore pays to compete against other destinations, which often can afford higher salaries and other perks.
“Leadership, frankly, really matters,” he said. “And my perspective is he’s well worth all the payments.”
Chuck Tildon, the current board chair and vice president of external affairs at the University of Maryland Medical System, said the board also considers large event bookings when determining salaries and raises — an area in which Hutchinson has routinely exceeded goals, Tildon said.
Tildon also said Hutchinson is an industry leader; he has been appointed board chair of the Destinations International, a national organization for destination marketing and management professionals.
Margot Amelia, executive vice president and chief strategy officer at the National Aquarium, former state and city tourism official and current Visit Baltimore board member, said Hutchinson also stands out for his commitment to a city that struggles to recruit and retain top talent.
“The job is a lot easier in other destinations, so Al could have left and gone to another destination because, let’s be honest, he’s a hot ticket,” Amelia said. “He is a consensus builder. He is well-known within the industry. And in a time when people really are looking to really represent their destinations and to have a DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] lens on all of their staffing, it is a hot ticket. ... So it is an absolutely appropriate, in my opinion, salary for him.”
‘A severe disadvantage’
In 2018, in a hotel ballroom at a posh hotel in Savannah, Georgia, a meeting among 65 tourism industry professionals was winding down when, suddenly, Hutchinson banged his fist on the table.
“He said, ‘Excuse me, friends: I want you to look around the room, and I want to challenge you: Does this look right to all of you?” recalled Don Welsh, Destinations International’s president and CEO. “He was the only person of color in the room. Now, I’m pleased to tell you that is no longer the case. But if not for that meeting that day, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Welsh, a Baltimore County native who leads an organization with 650 members from 17 countries, said he works closely with a handful of CEOs, Hutchinson among them, who deal with acute, generational problems in their destinations that require extra attention. He said tourism bureau heads often face questions about their compensations; Welsh even recalled being grilled about his salary by the Chicago Tribune editorial board during his tenure in that city.
His advice for Baltimore officials: “Build him a new convention center, and give him more support.”
Hutchinson’s supporters said that while he has achieved much in six years’ time, the Baltimore Convention Center remains at the top of the list of priorities that haven’t been met. Hutchinson agrees.
The city completed in fiscal year 2020 its debt service payments for bonds used to finance a previous convention center renovation and appropriated $4.6 million a year to offset future expansion renovation costs in 2021. After pausing this payment last fiscal year, the fiscal 2023 budget reactivates this contribution and includes an appropriation of $3.5 million for future expansion or renovation of the convention center complex, according to city budget documents.
Frisch, the former Visit Baltimore board chairman, said the city has fallen behind other places that have poured money into expanding and upgrading their convention centers.
“The thing about this investment in the convention center is, it’s a huge multiplier effect because it drives hotel revenue, it drives attraction revenue, it drives, retail, restaurants — all of the money that gets spent when people come to conventions,” said Frisch.
Added Welsh, “Baltimore is at a severe, competitive disadvantage.”
Hutchinson said conversations with Visit Baltimore and the Baltimore Convention and Tourism Board, city officials and the Maryland Stadium Authority have been reignited. Convention center events drive interest in Baltimore, he added, which sometimes can convince visitors to move here, start businesses here or send their kids to school here.
“That’s really why you want to host these big events, not just for that one week or that couple of days, but so that they have a great experience. They go back into the world, and you’ll get a bigger CIAA event, you’ll get another Maryland cycling classic, get another Baltimore Marathon,” Hutchinson said. “If and when we do the convention center, that’s the last piece of the puzzle that can really just move Baltimore to a level that it’s never been before.”