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High-tech facility in Falls draws rave reviews Center poised for best year yet

The Conference Center Niagara Falls is so full of technology that its wireless Internet has three backups and the chairs have a 12-hour comfort guarantee.

"The chairs are to die for," said Raymond DeRuyter, who held a three-day seminar of the New York State Association of Municipal Purchasing Officials there in October. "You go to your conference centers usually in hotels and they have 100,000 chairs with no arms and most of the screws falling out."

"The Conference Center [Niagara Falls] has $600 or $700 arm chairs, and my only problem was getting people to leave," he said from his office in Canandaigua.

The $19 million conference center opened in 2004 with a disappointing 108 bookings, a number that more than doubled in two years - and General Manager John Faso said technology will play a large part in its future growth.

He expects the 32,000- square-foot events center, ballroom and 15 meeting rooms of all sizes to accommodate 275 events or conferences in 2007. That also means more than 17,000 rooms already booked for local hoteliers.

The downtown conference center was built by the state to replace the former Niagara Falls Convention & Civic Center, which became the Seneca Niagara Casino in 2003.

Faso said the high technology available - such as video conferencing, streaming video and plasma screens - have attracted a high-end clientele that includes statewide associations and large companies, although he says it's been overwhelming for some.

"It's just starting to catch on," Faso said. "A lot of 55- to 60-year-old CEOs are still leery of the technology."

DeRuyter, however, can quickly name half a dozen technology comforts he says put the conference center at the top of his personal favorite list.

Remote controlled lighting, LCD projectors and screens in many meeting rooms, free wireless - backed up by a cable and two wireless connections - and individual electrical outlets in each desk made the experience "fabulous," he said. The 150 people who attended the seminar he coordinated in Niagara Falls heavily used its business center, which is like a mini Kinko's offering several computers with Internet access, phones, fax machines, printers and copiers all for free.

"It's the only one of that quality of technology available right now besides the Jacob Jabits Convention Center in New York City, and no one wants to go there because its mammoth," he said. "I'm sure you're going to be drawing people from across the border."

Even the geography of the center - with rooms that will accommodate small gatherings to one with tiered seating, and several areas to set up registration desks - impressed DeRuyter, who plans three or four conferences each year.

Gerry Catalano, of Niagara University's College of Business, has been using the conference center for local and international seminars since it opened.

He held a seminar there in 2005 that attracted accountants from 20 countries, and while he would have liked to have used video conferencing, which could cut down on costs and travel, he said other countries often don't have that capability yet.

"I do a lot of planning and this has everything you need," Catalano said. "We use their [smartboards], we use the projectors, all we have to bring is ourselves and a laptop and the work we want to do on CD or floppy and you can access their Internet."

The Smartboards the conference center offers are 78-inch mobile dry-erase boards with the ability to project notes being written on them onto a screen, and the contents of the board can also be saved on a laptop.

Catalano said he used to book seminars and conferences for the many business programs he coordinates at Niagara University in area hotels.

"There you have to bring everything in or they just charge outrageous money to run a screen or a sound system," he said.

The conference center doesn't charge anything extra for its technology.

Faso says once a meeting or conference is booked, the inhouse conference concierge and planning professionals will do whatever they can to make everything run smoothly. As well as choosing the right room and recommending ways to use the technology, they will make copies or even run a coat check.

Catalano says the biggest misconception about the conference center for locals is that it's too far to drive from Buffalo. He says he lives in Kenmore, and it takes a 20-minute drive that is well worth it.

"It's like a hidden jewel in Western New York. It's a topnotch facility," he said. "Most of the people that come are amazed that this is right in Niagara Falls."

He and DeRuyter said the center's attention to detail and high-technology offerings leave little to be desired, and that its location near the Seneca Niagara Casino and Niagara Falls State Park are a joy for out-of-towners.

Catalano said the only complaint he's received is that there isn't attached or adequate parking nearby.