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Turn Canadian shoppers into tourists

It turns out we have the same issues with Canadian shoppers that we do with tourists at Niagara Falls.

They come here, do their thing -- be it shopping or look at the falls -- and then they leave. That's it. Not much more.

And while local tourism officials have long yearned -- unsuccessfully so far -- for a way to get those Niagara Falls tourists to stick around for more than three or four hours, we now know that Canadian shoppers take the same approach when they head to the local malls.

More than half of the Canadian shoppers who make day trips to the Buffalo Niagara region -- and a third of those who stay overnight -- don't do anything else here but visit the mall, according to a study released last week by a Toronto-based tourism marketing research firm, Longwoods International.

"Right now, they know the track," said Michael Erdman, Longwoods' senior vice president and research director. "They know how to get to the Fashion Outlets. They know how to get to the Walden Galleria."

But they don't know how to get hardly any place beyond that, which kind of makes sense because they also don't really know much about what else there is to do in the Buffalo Niagara region beyond driving to our malls and shopping.

That's a costly mistake. But it also is a big opportunity -- if we can show them there's more to the Buffalo Niagara region than a big waterfall and malls. We have shows, nice restaurants and nice places to visit, too.

"The opportunity, of course, is to get people to go out and about and to do something other than shop," Erdman said. "You've got to get them off the track."

Those Canadians have money, enough to spend an estimated $933 million last year on shopping trips to the region, according to the report by Erdman's firm. And they're the type of visitors -- younger, well-educated people with above-average incomes -- who might be interested in the type of cultural tourism that the region has been touting recently.

Those Canadians already are a powerful economic force in the Buffalo Niagara region, packing the Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls, the Walden Galleria and, to a lesser extent, other local malls.

They're also good for the local hotel business, with an estimated 1.2 million of those shoppers spending the night here. They're good for local restaurants, which take in about $1 of every $5 our Canadian neighbors spend here. They're even good for local gas stations, because those savvy Canadian shoppers make sure to fill up on the cheaper American gasoline before heading home.

But it seems that far too many of them simply shop here, grab a quick lunch between stores, fill their gas tanks and go home. Even the ones who stay overnight don't seem all that inclined to hit the town, mainly because they don't know what's worth hitting in town.

That's because we don't do nearly as much as we should to let those Canadian shoppers know there's more to do here than shop.

"With the Canadians, we have treated them as one of us," said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, the president and chief executive officer of Visit Buffalo Niagara, which commissioned the study with its Niagara Falls counterpart, the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. "We don't think of them as needing more information."

But they do need it. Badly, as it turns out.

Canadian shoppers look at the Buffalo Niagara region as a shopping mecca, and little more. They like our prices. They like our stores. They even like our lower taxes (imagine that!).

They're not penny-pinchers, either. Sure, they're looking for bargains, but they've got a taste for electronics and more upscale goods.

"These aren't just bargain hunters who are coming because they need to buy cheap shoes," said Erdman, a Canadian. "We have Walmart, too."

But those same shoppers don't find the Buffalo Niagara region to be a very exciting place. They don't think we've got many nice restaurants. They don't think this is a good place to just walk around. They don't think we've got many places to go see.

"It's not necessarily because you don't have these things. It's because they didn't find these things," Erdman said.

"Your excitement factor is really low," he said. "They're not finding the night life, apparently. Or if they are finding it, they're finding it lacking."

To fix that, Erdman said the region needs to do more marketing to Canadians -- a tall order given the tight marketing budgets of both visitors bureaus.

"What this means is you've got to spend some money, folks," Erdman said.

"You really have an excellent, untapped opportunity to expand the shopper market," he said. "You've got to keep a presence there to stay on top of their minds."

Gallagher-Cohen said she hopes the study will help convince local retailers that Buffalo isn't a shrinking, midsized U.S. retail market, but one that has plenty of upside when you factor in the potential of the Canadian market. That might sway them to do more marketing that targets Canadians.

John Percy, the president and chief executive officer of the Niagara Falls tourism bureau, said tourism officials need to come up with better brochures and other material that outline all the other things those shoppers can do here. And those materials need to be in places where it's easy for Canadian shoppers to find them, namely the malls and shopper-oriented hotels.

"We have a lot of work to do in basic navigation," Gallagher-Cohen said. "We need to have people have the experiences outside the malls that are as fun as they are inside the malls."