Regional marketers are banking on a heightened interest in architectural and heritage tourism to help attract out-of-town visitors to Erie County -- and to keep them here longer.
Buffalo-area tourism officials are also hoping new alliances will be forged this year among major hotels, cultural institutions and shopping malls. The goal: to create a synergy between entities that will fuel joint-marketing ventures similar to ones that occurred during last summer's 14-week run of the Monet exhibit at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The record-setting run generated business for other cultural attractions, restaurants, hotels and shopping centers.
But officials at the Greater Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau believe that the most effective tool for boosting tourism is to do a better job selling the "locals." The theory goes like this:
Most out-of-town visitors come here to see friends and relatives. If the CVB can convince residents to be tourists in their own town, they will be more likely to treat visitors to nearby attractions.
"A lot of people who live here don't realize how many cultural, recreational and sports-related opportunities we have here," said Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Richard Geiger. "Too often, they rush their visitors out to see Niagara Falls. That's great, but we want these people to start looking at Buffalo in a different light."
With that objective in mind, the CVB is introducing a roving visitor center this year -- a recreational vehicle that will trek to local fairs, festivals and even shopping malls. The mobile facility will have exhibits of area attractions and be generously stocked with brochures.
Architectural and heritage tourism also figure heavily into local efforts to boost tourism. Organizers of an effort to restore the Darwin Martin House -- a Buffalo home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright -- estimate that the project could generate up to $100 million in economic spinoff for the region in its first five years of operation.
John C. Courtin, executive director of the Darwin Martin House Restoration Corp., testified at a state hearing that the project isn't just about refurbishing a house.
"We're talking about restoring a crown jewel of the city's architectural panoply," he said. "It can be a centerpiece for helping us to market architectural tourism."
A study projected that about 100,000 people would visit the structure on Jewett Parkway each year, many traveling from outside the region.
The Allentown Association this year plans to begin restoration of the Coit House -- a home on Virginia Street near Elmwood Avenue that dates to Buffalo's reconstruction after the city was burned by the British in 1813. The association believes it, too, can capitalize on architectural tourism with the project and existing walking tours of the historic neighborhood.
Heritage tourism is also a "hot sector," according to Geiger. For example, a business called Motherland Connextions has been successfully marketing tours of Underground Railroad sites. Tour guides who are dressed in pre-Civil War and African garb take groups to historically prominent locales and even stage Underground Railroad re-enactments featuring actors who portray bounty hunters.
Tourism officials in Erie County said effectively marketing a smorgasbord of diverse attractions will help Buffalo to capitalize on a bustling tourism trade that has been fueled by Casino Niagara in Niagara Falls, Ont. They claim that when a new $500 million casino and resort is built in Niagara Falls, Ont., it will attract 25 million visitors each year.
"That's comparable to what Disney World does in Florida," said Buffalo hotelier Paul L. Snyder, who is part of a group that has been tapped to finance, build and operate the Niagara Falls Casino/Gateway Project.
Meanwhile, CVB officials continue to push for construction of a new $124.5 million convention center in the downtown business district. While the county has pledged $30 million to the project, advocates have yet to obtain a commitment from the state for $90 million.
"The new convention center is the most important economic development initiative being discussed at this time," Geiger said. "It will provide over $58 million in direct economic spending annually."