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Convention Bureau hones its pitch to minority groups

The decision to organize the 10th National Black Catholic Congress -- and bring its 2,500 participants -- to Buffalo was easy for Brenda Easley Webb.

"Buffalo has a rich history for African-Americans, there is a sense of hospitality and there are a lot of good things about the community," said Webb, the event's director.

The National Black Catholic Congress is one of many large African-American and minority groups now choosing the Buffalo Niagara region for conventions and conferences.

African-American or minority groups that held events here accounted for about 20 percent of the roughly 100,000 hotel rooms that large groups booked through the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"The African-American meetings market is a burgeoning market and is one we're are able to more and more successfully tap," said Ed Healy, director of communications for the bureau. "We are very encouraged from the business we are getting from that sector."

In recent years, the bureau has worked closely with African-American and other minority groups in hosting events in Buffalo. Groups are attracted to the region because of its history, atmosphere and its location, which puts half the nation's population within a 500-mile radius.

In March, the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, one of America's oldest African-American sororities, held its annual conference here, with 1,500 attendees. The conference generated an estimated $1.22 million in revenue for area hotels, restaurants and businesses, according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Holding our convention in Buffalo worked out well. The visitors bureau was very accommodating and supportive," said Schylbea Hopkins, regional director of the sorority.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau helped organize the annual conference. Representatives from the bureau were present at every organizational meeting the sorority held when planning the convention in Buffalo.

"They were there every step of the way and understood our financial constraints. They were always available to communicate with," Hopkins said.

The United National Indian Tribal Youth brought 1,000 tourists, along with $814,000 of business in July 2006.

Drawing 400 visitors and $325,600 to the area in late July of last year was the the Association for Improvement of Minorities.

Even smaller groups, like family reunions, are effecting the area with their business.

Throughout this month, 10 family reunions are planned, bringing approximately 1,275 African-American or minority tourists to the region.

Since Buffalo is in competition with larger cities in the country, the bureau works with groups from the initial planning stages.

"We do a lot of networking with groups at other conventions that might come to Buffalo. A lot of the work comes from getting them here in the first place," said Dionne Williamson, multicultural sales manager for the bureau.

To attract the groups, the bureau may bring the planners of the targeted events to the area and show them first-hand what Buffalo has to offer.

"A lot of the leaders of the groups fall in love with Buffalo after we have them here for a visit and they see what the region has to offer and that there isn't snow in July," Williamson said.

The bureau promotes the history present in the Buffalo Niagara region relating it to the African-American and minority groups. The bureau offers a tour of six stops on the Underground Railroad that slaves used while journeying to freedom in Canada.

The bureau has several other day trips around Buffalo, Lewiston and Canada, tracing African-American history, as well as the history of the region.

Additionally, the bureau offers incentives to groups, like a signing bonus, in order to bring their business to the area.

"Many convention and visitors bureaus usually offer incentives to attract groups. Although it depends on the size of the group, we can sometimes offer a signing bonus of anywhere upwards of $2,500 or even things like discounted air fares," Williamson said.

Area hotels are able to capitalize on the influx of visitors the conventions and conferences bring to the area.

The Hyatt Regency Hotel, connected to the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, is one of the businesses benefiting from the events.

"There has absolutely been an increase in business from the large groups of African Americans and minorities coming to the city for events," said Julie Williams, director of sales, catering and marketing for the hotel.

"The impact these large groups have is not only favorable to the hotel, but to the city as well," she said.

While the National Black Catholic Congress was in town, the hotel was completely booked for four nights, like every other hotel in the area, she said.

Hotels aren't the only businesses reaping the benefits from the large groups coming to Buffalo.

GiGi's, an African-American-owned restaurant located at 257 East Ferry St., is included on one of the day tours the visitors bureau can arrange.

Aside from being included as a stop on one of the tours, GiGi's attracts customers from the venues because of its 46-year history, said Rochester Davis, manager and co-owner of the restaurant.

"Any time a convention is held in Buffalo, we always see an increase in business. The customers from the conventions are certainly a breath of fresh air," Davis said.

e-mail: cmichel@buffnews.com

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