Buffalo's newest tourism ad campaign features a Buffalo mascot doing the unexpected: playing a trumpet at the Colored Musicians Club, sniffing a flower at Garden Walk Buffalo, painting a canvas at the Darwin D. Martin House.
There's something else unexpected: hardly a mention of Niagara Falls.
For years, Visit Buffalo Niagara's strategy for bringing tourists to the Queen City was to persuade them to stick around after visiting the waterfalls. Ads from Buffalo's tourism bureau focused on the magnificent cataract, then tacked Buffalo on as a footnote.
But now, after hundreds of millions of dollars in attraction investments in the city, Buffalo has a story to tell that's all its own.
The quirky Buffalo featured in the "Meet the Unexpected Buffalo" campaign is a stark contrast from the years when the tourism agency marketed the city's tourist destinations as the "Gateway to Niagara."
"We no longer have to lead with Niagara Falls. We can tell them about our great attractions and then close the sale with, 'Oh, by the way, we're 20 minutes from Niagara Falls,' " said Patrick Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara.
The new, Buffalo-centric ads will appear in a 300-mile radius of Buffalo, from Ohio to Southern Ontario, in print, digital and broadcast as well as on buses, posters and billboards. It's a $1.3 million destination marketing campaign funded by the Seneca Gaming Corp. through the City of Buffalo.
A generation ago, some of what's now worth seeing in Buffalo either wasn't in great shape or simply didn't exist.
There was no Colored Musicians Club Museum until the historic building secured $600,000 in public funds to create a museum showcasing its cultural heritage. The Garden Walk was much smaller, having grown to more than 400 participating houses and becoming the largest event of its kind in the country. And the Darwin D. Martin House was a shell of its former glory, not yet showing the benefits of its $50 million restoration.
That's in addition to the $76.5 million renovation of the Richardson Complex, the $33 million into the Burchfield Penney, $50 million into the Buffalo Zoo and $20 million into the Roycroft Inn, among many other investments. Overall, $895 million have been invested into attractions in Erie County, according to Visit Buffalo Niagara.
There are other attractions the new Buffalo has to offer that it didn't before. The $300 million waterfront centerpiece that is Canalside didn't exist a few years ago; neither did HarborCenter or any of the attractions that sprang up around them. Millions of dollars have been poured into hotel construction, too, giving guests more appealing choices for lodging.
"We have stories to tell that weren't possible a generation ago," said Brian Hayden, communications manager for Visit Buffalo Niagara.
Tourism officials point to signs that the new attractions are succeeding in bringing tourists to visit. Erie County hotels made an estimated $311 million in revenue in 2015, compared to $205 million in 2006, according to Tourism Economics, which measures economic impact.
The new Buffalo has also attracted attention from travel writers, three dozen of which were hosted by the Visit Buffalo Niagara last year and shared positive reviews about the city with their readers. A windfall came in the form of a "Travel + Leisure" survey in which the magazine's readers ranked Buffalo their favorite city.
The Canadian market has been vital to the Western New York economy, but the drop in the value of the Canadian dollar has hampered cross-border shopping trips. Instead of marketing the region as a prime shopping destination, Visit Buffalo Niagara has pitched it as the perfect place for a girlfriend getaway. It also has materials marketing the region's breweries, sports events, African-American heritage and local artisans.
Tourists to Buffalo are staying longer and spending more.
Visitors in 2016 spent an average of $462 more per party than visitors in 2015, according to a study for Visit Buffalo Niagara by Young Strategies. They stayed 4.3 nights in Buffalo last year compared to just 2.8 in 2015.
Restaurateurs and hoteliers said the buzz surrounding the new Buffalo has been paying off.
Chef Marco Scorintino, owner of Marco's Italian Restaurant, said the recent changes in the city have brought his Niagara Street eatery full circle. Niagara Street was a hot spot in 1988 when the restaurant opened, but was stagnant for years.
"The resurgence of downtown and the new Buffalo has brought an invigorated push back to the West Side and its glory days," he said. "We are meeting new guests daily and we love it."
By the numbers
Money invested in Erie County attractions: $895 million
Growth in Erie County hotel revenue from 2006 to 2015: $106 million
Average number of nights stayed in 2015, 2.8.
Average number of nights stayed in 2016, 4.3.