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Erie County is seeing some most hospitable trends Occupancy, revenues for hotels are rising

High gasoline prices, a robust Canadian dollar and a good base of convention business have bolstered Erie County's hospitality industry this year, tourism officials say.

From January through August, the county's hotel occupancy was up nearly 2 percent from the same eight months in 2007, to 69.5 percent, according to Smith Travel Research, a Tennessee-based firm which tracks industry data. Hotel revenues increased 9.5 percent to about $131 million.

The average daily rate, calculated by room revenue divided by rooms sold, was $90.55, was up 6.7 percent from $84.86 a year earlier, Smith Travel Research said.

"Everything has been going in the right direction," said Edward Healy, director of communications for the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Buffalo Niagara is benefiting from trends like Canadians coming for shopping and getaways, as well as high gas prices that have led some residents of nearby regions to vacation closer to home, CVB officials said.

Another boost continues to come from Canadians who fly out of Buffalo Niagara International Airport after booking a hotel room here the night before.

"We're trying to leverage that, build on that, and encourage even more visitation," Healy said.

Travel pieces in Canadian newspapers and publications earlier this year spotlighted Buffalo. To help stimulate that kind of coverage, the CVB invites travel writers to come see what is here, Healy said.

Tourism officials consider Southern Ontario and the Finger Lakes good marketing targets, in light of high gas prices that make shorter driving trips more appealing.

Aside from leisure travelers, conventions and meetings are a vital source of visitors for hotels. The CVB estimates Erie County will finish the year with 230 definite bookings, up from 190 the year before.

Those events give hoteliers a base of business they can count on in the coming year or so, said Michael Even, the CVB's director of convention sales and services.

Just like travel writers and group tour leaders, Even said, the key is to get site inspectors for conventions and meetings to visit the region to spark their interest.

"They want creativity" in a destination, Even said. "They're looking for different things that are out of the mainstream."

Some of those events are planned far in advance, Even said. One year ago, Buffalo was chosen for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's conference -- in 2011.

Still, Healy sees an immediate payoff. The CVB can use the National Trust's selection in its pitches to other meeting planners considering Buffalo, since the organization is known for thoroughly vetting the sites of its conferences, he said. "It's opening other doors for us."

Tourism promoters have some new and revamped attractions highlight, including the Erie Canal Harbor, the soon-to-open Burchfield-Penney Art Center on Elmwood Avenue, and the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, which is undergoing reconstruction.

The Buffalo area received some additional exposure this year when it hosted Travel Expo New York, giving group tour planners ideas of places they could bring motorcoaches full of sightseers.

David Hart, chief executive officer of Hart Hotels, said his area properties are having a good year, citing the same influences the CVB points to.

"We're a 'drive-to' market," Hart said. "There's a lot of places you can get to in and around Buffalo on a tank of gas."

Hart noted that county "bed tax" revenues are expected to reach a record-high $8 million this year, compared to about $5 million four years ago. Hart said he would like to see more of those funds poured back into marketing the region to visitors, to keep the growth going.

Smith Travel Research estimates that for all of 2008, the county's hotel room revenues will reach $198.6 million, up 9 percent from the year before. And the hotel occupancy rate is expected to reach nearly 70 percent by year's end, which would be up 8 percentage points from three years ago.

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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