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LOCAL BUSINESSES MAKE WEB LINK WITH THE WORLD

After 20 years of riding the ups and downs of the local hospitality industry, Galeb Rizek gave his Niagara Falls Boulevard motel a new name and a new look. Then he began searching for ways to infuse it with new life.

The Internet was his answer.

Within minutes of signing on with Destinations.com, an Internet-based central reservations system, Rizek's Scottish Inns received its first computer booking. Business has been steady in the month since.

"It has definitely filled rooms up," Rizek said of the service, to which he was introduced by the Niagara Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's going well."

CVB president Stan Rydelek said that the service represents "one of the biggest moves forward we will make in terms of tourism in Niagara Falls." Not only will it simplify operations for local business, but it will expose more potential visitors to the wonders of Niagara Falls -- and hopefully result in longer stays once they come here.

"Unfortunately, we don't have the longest average stays" for the estimated five to 10 million tourists descending on the area annually, Rydelek said. So he began looking at what other visitor bureaus do to attract people and extend their stays.

Again, the Internet was the answer.

"We noticed many bureaus were using a central reservation service, and that it had been very successful in increasing the average stays of visitors," he said. "Since we were looking for a creative way of creating more attention for the different attractions in the area," CVB officials began exploring the feasibility of employing such a service here.

"We went to our members and developed a list of potential problems with such an undertaking," Rydelek said. Then, CVB officials huddled with members of The Travel Team, a Buffalo-based travel management company offering connections to Destinations.com.

"They were extremely well-prepared and answered all of the concerns presented," Rydelek said. "We were very impressed with the way they handled things," and ultimately agreed to present the program to CVB members.

"This is a service provided to our members only, and they can buy into it," said CVB membership coordinator Jane Schroeder. "They pay a one-time fee, as well as fees for reservations" generated through the Internet service.

"It's just like buying tickets through Fantastix," Ms. Schroeder said. "(The price) isn't high. It's not an exorbitant amount of money."

Ms. Schroeder said that the CVB typically gets "lots of phone calls from people believing we make reservations -- we don't. We realized this was a service we really need here."

Potential visitors can reach the reservation system by logging directly on to the Destinations.com web page, or by visiting the "accommodations" link on the official Niagara Falls CVB website at www.nfcvb.com.

A web page for each participating spot (currently nine: Atlantic City, Palm Springs, San Diego, Las Vegas, Ocean City, N.J., Orlando, Phoenix and Hawaii joining Niagara Falls) details what accommodations and attractions are available and in what price categories, Travel Team marketing manager Ron Luczak said.

Questioners are linked to a "reservation specialist" -- currently based at a call center in Seattle, but with another scheduled to open in Buffalo later this year -- for specific questions about particular destinations: proximity to the falls, to shopping centers, to other attractions.

"Reservation specialists" are brought to each destination city to be educated about attractions, layout and the like, Luczak said. They are armed with maps so they can be as familiar as possible with the locations they are touting.

Rydelek said that one of the biggest advantages to the program was its "McDonald's-like" menu suggestions.

"You know how they always ask, 'Would you like fries or an apple pie with that?' Well, (reservation specialists) ask (clients) if they would consider other attractions during their stay. It creates a sense of there being a lot of things to do and see in the area.

"The suggestion of it would hopefully generate an extended length of stay" for future visitors, he said.

Early bugs have already been worked out of the system, Ms. Schroeder said: the listing of the Native American Center (the long-since closed Turtle), as well as as few sites, such as the Butterfly Conservatory, on the Canadian side.

"It was a mistake. People are human," Ms. Schroeder said.

Luczak explained that "with changes in the travel industry -- so many people doing their dealings on the Internet -- it was a natural marriage for ourselves and the Internet. It represented a way to grow our business and offer a service to hotels we have partnered with."

"It's very inexpensive advertising -- that's one way to look at it," he said. "It allows hotels to sell more inventory over the Internet."

Luczak said that Destinations.com has been in operation since 1988, and "we anticipate each new client experiences at least a 30 percent increase in sale."

"As the system grows (and more businesses come on board), those numbers tend to increase," Luczak said. "As the word gets out, smaller properties will come on. We have several now enjoying advance computerized bookings for the first time in their existence."

For many tourists, using Destinations.com means incurring a non-refundable room-booking fee (usually added to the room cost), Luczak said. The fee "is absorbed by participating hotels in Niagara Falls," he said.

Rizek said that he joined the Falls CVB primarily for the opportunity to deal with Destinations.com. He's already glad he did -- but the true test may be in the off-season. "It may help" with that slow period, he said.

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