A woman from Baltimore came to see us last month.
Allison Klein, a reporter with the Baltimore Sun, jumped on Southwest Airlines' $46 Baltimore-to-Buffalo special. She spent a weekend, had a good time, wrote a piece for her paper that was reprinted Sunday in The News.
She saw a lot of what we've got, from the Anchor Bar to Chippewa Street to the Albright-Knox. She said everybody was "super friendly."
It was a nice story. It said, basically, that we're worth a $92 round-trip airline ticket.
"It was more fun," said Klein, "than I expected."
That's great. What's not so great is that more people don't know it.
When it comes to telling the world what we've got, we know how to keep a secret.
That's why the downtown Adam's Mark Hotel was 85 percent empty the weekend Klein was here. It was so empty, the hotel van -- driven by a bellhop -- shuttled her around town. It was nice of them to do it, sad that they were able to.
We won't even talk about the cab driver who told her to skip Buffalo and head to Niagara Falls. Is there some sort of reverse Citizen of the Year Award we can give that guy?
When there's that much room at the inn, it's time to think harder. It's time to, say, call the Albright-Knox, the Sabres, the Convention & Visitors Bureau and whoever else and put together a package. It's time to take out come-to-Buffalo ads in newspapers in cities within a few hours' drive (or with cheap air fares to Buffalo): For, say, 300 bucks, we can give you Picasso, Hasek, Niagara Falls and "Les Mis."
"I think it sounds great," said Jennifer Baldwin, administrative assistant at the Adam's Mark. "We're willing to pursue any ideas on this."
I'm not in the tourism business. I'm just a guy -- some would say not an especially bright guy -- sitting at a computer terminal. If I can think of this, why haven't the people running the show?
Maybe our communal inferiority complex blinds us to possibilities. But when Southwest comes to town, it's not just a chance to go Somewhere Else. It's a chance to persuade people Somewhere Else to come here.
The state just sank $14 million to retrofit Shea's for touring Broadway shows. There's a half-dozen other theaters in or near downtown. We've got a great art museum. The Sabres. Skiing. Classic buildings by genius architect Frank Lloyd Wright. There's a natural wonder a half-hour away. Bars that stay open until 4 a.m., if that's something to brag about. Klein didn't get to the Theater District because, she said, "We just didn't have time."
It's a full weekend. But nobody knows if we don't tell them.
Obviously, we're doing some things right. Downtown hotels did pretty well last year. The Adam's Mark sank $25 million into new meeting space a few years ago. The Convention & Visitors Bureau has a nice Web site and pulls in a fair number of conventioneers. Buffalo in midwinter isn't an easy sell.
But we're still too much of an "I got mine" city. Too many people don't look beyond their own cubbyholes. You have to wrap and sell what we've got, not just Buffalo but Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake and skiing and Roycroft and the rest of it.
It's even simple stuff, like giving hotel guests a list of what's going on downtown every day: what's playing at Shea's, the program at the Philharmonic, a list of three-star restaurants. Klein only knew the Sabres were in town when she saw the game on the hotel TV.
"The people at the hotel were really good when you asked something," said Klein. "But there was no schedule of events that I saw."
Don't ask, don't tell. The county's Cultural Resources Advisory Board barely talks to the Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"There's a lot of people who haven't been talking to each other," said Bruce Fisher, County Executive Joel Giambra's chief of staff. "Will they be talking? Absolutely."
The county won't be just asking people to tear down the fences.
"We're investing millions of dollars in theaters and museums," said Fisher. "We need a better return on the investment."
That means package weekends, ads in newspapers in cities within driving distance or a cheap air fare, meetings with newspaper travel editors.
We've already shown we can keep a secret. It's time to prove we can tell one.