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Local hotel owners and tourism officials will meet with leaders from major cultural institutions next month for what's being billed as a unique effort to craft a plan aimed at luring new visitors to Buffalo and keeping them here longer.

Officials from Walden Galleria, the region's largest shopping mall, are also being invited to participate as marketers explore new ways to "package" the area's retail, cultural and hospitality amenities.

One long-term goal is to forge joint-marketing efforts that will enable Buffalo to cash in on the bustling tourism trade in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Paul L. Snyder owns the Hyatt Regency Buffalo and is part of a group that has been tapped to finance, build and operate the $500 million Niagara Falls Casino/Gateway Project in Ontario. He predicted that when the new casino and resort opens in three years, it will attract 25 million visitors annually.

"That's comparable to what Disney World does in Florida," said Snyder. "Western New York has an opportunity to take advantage of what's happening over there. But we have to start doing some preliminary planning."

Snyder said he will take part in the meeting that is being planned in late January and is being coordinated by state Assemblyman Paul R. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, who chairs the Committee on Tourism, Arts and Sports Development. Tokasz said this summer's experience with the Monet exhibit at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery illustrated the power of collaboration within the tourism and arts communities. Nearly 170,000 people viewed the exhibit during a record-setting 14-week run, many of them out-of-towners who also visited other cultural attractions and patronized local restaurants, shopping centers and hotels.

"This needs to be an ongoing effort so that various players can be piggyback on events that are occurring in the community," Tokasz said.

The assemblyman has been working closely with the Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth, an entity based at the University at Buffalo. Institute Director John B. Sheffer II, an advocate of regionalism, will be playing a key role in the upcoming effort, Tokasz said. He added that the Greater Buffalo Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Arts Council in Buffalo & Erie County have pledged their support for the initiative.

Tokasz said there are opportunities on a monthly basis to create "synergies" between key players in the tourism and hospitality industries. He cited Shea's Performing Arts Center as one local arts organization that would be excellent candidate for joint-marketing ventures with hotels, restaurants and malls.

Shea's President Patrick J. Fagan said he looks forward exploring new marketing strategies. He said the newly-expanded theater is already attracting sizable crowds. For example, nearly 40,000 tickets have already been sold for "Beauty and the Beast" which begins a two-week run at Shea's on Feb. 1. In the spring, Shea's will present Les Miserables, Jekyll and Hyde and several other major productions.

"We support this collaborative effort 100 percent," said Fagan. "If we can tie some of our malls, museums and theaters into a package, it's going to be a win-win for everyone."

Fagan also noted that the large number of new restaurants that have opened in the Theater District, coupled with the vitality of the Chippewa Street corridor, are additional tools that could be used to encourage visitors from Ontario and other neighboring regions to spend the night in Buffalo.

"I remember when I was a kid growing in Dunkirk. People would head up to the Town Casino and make it a weekend stay in Buffalo," said Fagan. "I think we can recapture some of that by putting together weekend theater packages that tie in other cultural attractions and shopping opportunities."

Fagan has already been exploring some possibilities with officials from Studio Arena Theatre, but he expressed enthusiasm for broadening the collaborative effort.

In recent years, marketers across the nation have been placing added emphasis on cultural tourism. The Travel Industry Association of America said tourists who travel to attend cultural events generally spend about 44 percent more than traditional travelers, stay longer and are more likely to patronize hotels, motels or bed and breakfasts.

Tokasz said state officials have recognized the value of cultural tourism. In each of the past two years, the state budget has included $250,000 to promote cultural tourism efforts across New York.

"Now the goal is to get cultural organizations, hotels, restaurants and shopping malls all pulling in the same direction," said Tokasz. "They can't operate in a vacuum."

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