Ruth Toomey

Ruthie Toomey has a varied perspective on Maryland’s tourism industry ― which ranks among its top 12 economic engines and employs 173,000 residents ― so it only made sense that her career path led her to the Maryland Tourism Coalition, which she’s run since 2018. 

Toomey, an area native, learned the industry from the small business and the large retail perspectives: she served as director of sales and marketing for a local transportation company after a stint as guest services manager for Arundel Mills. As the industry continues its post-shutdown rebound, she offered her observations to The Business Monthly.

Is tourism back?

Yes and no. There is still that general demand to get out and travel to the point that even the international market is returning. That’s good, because those travelers stay longer and spend more money.

However, it’s different for the domestic market. Ocean City for instance, has become unaffordable for the average family so Marylanders are looking to other locales, such as Myrtle Beach. The Myrtle Beach tourism office has been doing some heavy marketing, which is apparent if you watch much TV.

Do you have any figures to back up any recent progress?

Yes. We’re still not back to 2019 levels, but we’re getting there. The 2021 numbers from Tourism Economics indicate that Maryland’s 35.2 million visitors spent $16.4 billion, which generated $2.1 billion in state taxes.

That said, I’ll be very interested to see the 2022 figures, which we hope to see by August.

What was the best year for tourism in recent times?

It was   2019, which was apparent just by looking at our numbers: that year, 42.1 million visitors spent $18.6 billion in Maryland, generating $2.6 billion in state and local taxes. 

What’s new this year?

Outdoor recreation, heritage tourism and agritourism, which isn’t surprising considering that the former Grow & Fortify CEO Kevin Atticks was recently appointed by Gov. Wes Moore as secretary of the state Department of Agriculture.

What role does the MTC have in promoting the industry?

As a trade association, we promote Maryland to Marylanders, so we try to find hidden gems across the state for our residents. For instance, there’s the Wizard of Oz Park, in Watkins Regional Park, in Upper Marlboro; Mary’s Land Farm, which offers a store, a bed and breakfast and farm animals, in Ellicott City; and Wild Kid Acres, in Edgewater, is a new addition within our agritourism family.

What was the hot tourism topic during Session ’23?

The need for an increase in marketing funds. We only have $15.3 million, so we’re way behind our competing states, which are Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia. Virginia, for instance, has $78 million and Pennsylvania has $35.1 million; West Virginia is more similar in size and has $25.4 million.

What is the MTC budget and where does the money come from?

We have a very tiny budget that comes from membership dues, sponsorships and events.

How has the MTC grown?

Since I became executive director, membership has grown from 155 members to 279. We’ve been making sure that we reach all corners of the state with our events and it’s paying off.

Our dues structure starts at $99 for one introductory year. On Jan. 1, our dues became $250 for standard membership; $350 for associations, organizations and media partners with budgets less than $500,000; and $500 for associations or government entities.

How does the MTC work with Maryland Commerce, county and regional entities, hotels and other attractions?

We partner with Maryland Department of Tourism (under Commerce). Together, we host National Travel & Tourism Week, which is held the first full week in May; as well as the state tourism conference, the Maryland Tourism & Travel Summit, which is held every fall. This year it will be held in Owings Mills from Nov. 8-10. 

What’s the overall health of the state’s hotel industry?

That depends on the region. There are some very strong areas and others that are struggling. The Ocean City market is strong because it attracts a good percentage of visitors from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport attracts many people who use it to make their travel arrangements easier. You also see the same approach for people using the Port of Baltimore for cruises.

However, the relative lack of meetings and people coming back to offices has been a source of pain. Also, the number of family reunions is down, which points to inflation and the cost of transportation, hotels, food, entertainment, etc. These events draw up to 500 people and Arundel Mills and Live! Casino & Hotel are big attractions for that sector.

The BWI Business District used to be home to only a few hotels. Today, there are about 40. Can they all still stay afloat?

While business and government travel is down, on the weekends they do well with wedding and social travel blocks; and interestingly, during the boat show weekends in Annapolis. Last year, Visit Annapolis & Anne Arundel County ran a pilot program that shuttled visitors from the Arundel Mills/BWI Business District’s area hotels to Annapolis.

How are you working with various state organizations to build the workforce?

MTC started Faces of Tourism to show the career paths in the tourism industry. We have started to attend job fairs to show all the different sectors that fall under our umbrella. Our Education Committee is launching Student Membership to tap into the hospitality programs at the high school and college levels to help be a resource to our future workforce. In fact, I’m starting to see some of those people who left due to the pandemic, etc., again looking for jobs back in our industry.

What’s something you don’t think many people realize about tourism today?

That Maryland households save nearly $1,000 in state taxes because of tourism. The money tourists spend helps build schools and fund our services ― yet tourists leave and don’t use them. We need to be more welcoming to our visitors, not chase them away. 

What makes you particularly optimistic?

As we continue to educate our residents and legislators about the importance of our industry, doors that have been closed will open. I can already see some peeking.