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Hoping for comeback

Is Boston ready to make nice?

I'll be more specific. Are cabdrivers ready? Waiters? State troopers? Everyday drivers who honk at everyone around?

These are not esoteric questions, nor particularly frivolous ones, not with 120,000 conventioneers streaming through town from June to August amid one of the busiest summers this city has ever seen.

Gradually, then suddenly, the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center has become an indisputable success. Last month brought 13,500 visitors to a Microsoft show and another 10,000 endocrinologists. Last weekend brought 18,000 Lions. Next week brings another 10,000 to another Microsoft show, next month 20,000 computer graphics experts.

I hate to be the bearer of good news, but the thing is actually starting to work, just as Mayor Thomas M. Menino said it would. Don't take my word for it. A key industry trade magazine ranked Boston as the seventh busiest convention city in North America in 2006, marking the first time Boston has cracked the top 10 in the last 22 years.

Which brings me to James E. Rooney, the Boston born and bred executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, who looked oddly glum yesterday as he ticked off one success after another. ``So much of what affects visitors' attitudes about a city happens outside of the convention center," he said.

Rooney tells the story of the two German software executives who had had such bad experiences with a pair of rude Boston taxi drivers that when they hosted a convention for 5,500 people last September, they hired a fleet of buses to pick up the arriving conventioneers at Logan Airport. That one move cost cabbies about $70,000 in fares.

Or there's the story of the Back Bay maitre d' who sent away four endocrinologists last month because they had the audacity to come into the restaurant too close to the closing hour of 10 p.m. God forbid the host try to be accommodating.

Or there's the note that Rooney received this week: ``Cab driver was not happy that I took his cab from Logan Airport to Convention Center. It stopped the excitement of traveling to Boston and being around many Lions."

I don't think I'm telling any tales out of school when I say we're not exactly Orlando or Chicago, in terms of being the most welcoming people. Oh, sure, we like to wave at visitors, but it's usually with a lone finger protruding from our hands.

Other cities lay out a red carpet. Bostonians have just about built a moat. The weather's not the coldest thing in town. So Rooney is in the process of trying to give his city a fast makeover in the ways of being nice.

To that end, he has successfully asked Massport officials to post banners and live greeters at Logan Airport, to have pilots offer a welcome aboard arriving flights filled with conventioneers, and to allow chauffeurs to idle at the terminals without the famously inhospitable troopers moving them along.

He's bought EZ-Pass transponders for all city cabdrivers, so they can use the fast lanes leaving the airport and the special turnaround at the Brighton tolls. In the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished category, drivers and cab company owners are arguing over who gets the toll bills.

He has asked the state Highway Department to use its electronic road signs to direct conventioneers to events, but was rebuffed. Federal rules, he was told.

``They're saying it's for traffic management messages only," Rooney explained. ``I say, put it up and ask for forgiveness later."

At issue isn't just a city's image, but tens of millions of dollars in business. Every conventioneer is a prospective future tourist. Every convention offers the prospect of return business. And every convention organizer talks to other organizers, sharing stories of virtue and woe.

One of our favorite whipping boys, the new convention center, finally got its act straight. But the question lingers: Can we?

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

Previous columns:
 BRIAN MCGRORY: Courtesy call (6/16/06)
 BRIAN MCGRORY: An obstacle to equality (1/10/06)
 BRIAN MCGRORY: Standing up for courtesy (11/18/05)
 BRIAN MCGRORY: When a seat isn't yours (11/11/05)
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