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Coming attractions to boost WNY tourism Strong Canadian dollar, greater Web presence also drawing visitors

Western New York could see another good year for regional tourism in 2007, based on the continued strength of the Canadian dollar, advance bookings for conventions and sports events, pending attractions in Buffalo, and a stronger Web presence, tourism officials said.

Those were some of the conditions that contributed to a "fairly decent year" in 2006, as hotel occupancy, room rates and hotel revenues all rose locally.

In particular, occupancy was up 6 percent to 67 percent. Room rates were up 4.5 percent to an average of $79. And total revenues for hotels rose 12 percent to $155 million.

"We always want to do better," said Richard Geiger, CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We can always grow it, but looking at the numbers, 2006 was a fairly strong year for the Buffalo- Niagara hospitality industry."

Much of the activity was driven by national trends, Geiger said, as a good economy, relatively low unemployment, stable gas prices and a feeling of safety spurred Americans to travel.

"There haven't been any terrorist attacks, so there's a safe feeling," he said. "And there's pent-up demand from people not traveling the last few years."

Western New York is also seeing an influx from the north, as the Canadian dollar "is helping to drive more and more Canadians from Ontario to Western New York," Geiger said.

They're coming to shop, see attractions, attend Bills or Sabres games, and use the airport. "And that's been great for the hotel business as well," he said.

That's why the bureau has been steadfastly opposed to the U.S. proposal to require Canadian citizens and returning American citizens to show a passport or another new form of I.D. to enter the United States.

"It poses a serious deterrent to a significant number of Canadians who routinely visit Buffalo," said Geiger, whose agency prefers a uniform drivers' license standard.

The factors that drove 2006's results are continuing this year. In addition, Geiger cited new attractions slated to open soon, including the Darwin Martin House, the Frank Lloyd Wright boathouse, the Inner Harbor development, the Michigan Avenue Heritage Corridor and the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, as well as improvements at the Buffalo Zoo. Combined, he said, these projects represent hundreds of millions of tourism dollars invested in the community.

"Buffalo and Erie County are becoming a more compelling visitors' destination when a number of these attractions open," he said, noting what development of Baltimore's Inner Harbor did for that city. "It also begins to give us some big stories to tell the national public. That's a real positive thing for the community and for us to market the community."

> Pushing Spitzer

Meanwhile, state trade groups in Albany are working to emphasize to the new Spitzer administration the impact tourism has on the state's economy.

The New York State Hospitality and Tourism Association, together with the Tourism Industry Coalition and New York State Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus, presented state officials with an in-depth study, by region, of how much travelers spend, how much taxes are generated, and how many jobs are created from tourism.

"This research has been favorably received by the new administration," said Daniel C. Murphy, president of the Hospitality and Tourism Association.

For their part, state officials note that travelers spent $41 billion in the state last year alone, making tourism critical for the economy that Spitzer has pledged to strengthen. Empire State Development Corp., which oversees the "I Love New York" tourism campaign, will even have an upstate co-chair and headquarters in Buffalo, noted Mary Ellen Walsh, deputy commissioner for marketing, advertising and tourism.

And it will administer the $1 million Explore NY grant program that allocates up to $50,000 each to support the development of tourism promotional programs using themes like golf, history, skiing, arts, eco-tourism and culinary travel.

Not all is positive though. While the CVB already has 83,000 room nights booked for conventions and amateur sporting events for this year - not counting regular tourism or what it will book during the year for events - that's down 13 percent from the 95,000 that were booked at the start of 2006.

The region will host the NCAA basketball first and second rounds in March, and will get them back in 2010 after they rotate to other cities. Two major bowling tournaments are also coming this year, the Bass Masters Elite Series fishing tournament will bring ESPN 2 coverage in July and ECC's Burt Flickinger Center will still host swimming events downtown.

"Amateur sports and special events are a real big part of this community," Geiger said. "We have a very good reputation and image in the amateur sports world, and we'll continue to go after events."

> CVB takes hit

Even without the decline in room nights, the bookings for events such as hockey, swimming and bowling tournaments are a tiny percentage of the 2 million room nights the region has. But Geiger attributed the drop solely to budget cuts in staff and marketing that resulted from the county's fiscal crisis, since those bookings required bureau staff to actively call on the groups.

He said the agency's staff has been cut by one-third, while its budget for advertising, attending trade shows and sales trips was slashed in half. Total full-time staff is down to 18 from 28, and the number of salespeople was cut from six to four.

The agency's total budget is $2 million, with two-thirds for programming and marketing.

"I can assure you that the phone doesn't ring a lot here," he said. "The continued loss of revenue to solicit groups is going to take its toll as we enter this year."

Geiger said the agency is talking with the county Administration and the Erie County Legislature about restoring some funding in 2007, and then dedicating the full hotel bed tax to the bureau in 2008 to cover its operations and the convention center's debt. This year, the 5 percent bed tax is estimated to bring in $6.3 million.

Still, the bureau's budget would trail other regional cities. Pittsburgh and Baltimore each spend $9 million, Cleveland's budget is $7 million, and Columbus spends $6.5 million.

"We're being outspent," Geiger said. "The public makes decisions on where they want to go for a weekend getaway or vacation. They've got to see your advertising and read about you in order to make a decision to come to your marketplace."

Even with the cuts, Geiger said the bureau has "an aggressive outreach marketing campaign" and hired two public relations firms to get "good stories" told about what's happening in Buffalo, including the harbor development and the opening of the Naval Park in May. "That gives us a whole new story to tell," he said. "That can help us with our image in the marketplace."

Staff also are calling on AAA and Canadian Automobile Association offices in both countries to tell them of the amenities here and convince them of the value so they can discuss it with people who come into their offices. "We have some real direct and concentrated advertising going on in Ontario," Geiger said. "We think that's a real good feeder market for us."

> Enhanced Web sites

And they're counting on the Web to bring in traffic. Officials plan a "complete renovation" of the bureau's Web site this year to give it a new look and feel, and to focus on the community's legacy of art, history and architecture and its proximity to Niagara Falls.

The bureau is also spending money on Web advertising, including buying premium space on search engines so that certain keywords bring up Buffalo among the top three results. And it launched a second Web site focused on architecture, using video clips and podcasts, as well as e-postcards.

Last year, the bureau's primary Web site at www.visitbuffaloniagara. org received 20.7 million "hits," up 12 percent from 18.5 million in 2005. More importantly, the number of "unique visitors" - those who spend an average of two minutes at the site - rose 44 percent to 428,000.

"We believe the Web site is one of the most important marketing tools we have for the consumer and for the trade," Geiger said. "So we need to have the best possible site that we can to capture visitors and give them a compelling reason to come here."

Similarly, Empire State Development is redesigning the "I Love New York" campaign's Web site to offer better service, Walsh said.

"The Internet has transformed tourism," Walsh said. "Technology, especially the Internet, has made it possible for destinations that previously were not actively competing for tourists to market themselves worldwide with a relatively small investment."

e-mail: jepstein@buffnews.com