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Delaware North's new Web store shows what the firm is all about

In the few months since Delaware North opened its Web site store with elegant photos of gourmet dishes, a wooden canoe and a girl with an expectant look, one of the most expensive items did sell.

A $10,000 meteorite from the Kennedy Space Center, one of the 150 destinations managed by the Buffalo company, got packed in an oil drum and shipped off to its buyer in Japan.

But there have been no takers yet for the $98,000 trek with a personal chef through the mountain camps at Yosemite National Park. And no one has signed up for the $250-a-day forest treasure hunt. Even so, the Web store's planners say the site is already working as intended: to give people a better idea of what the "quiet company" is really like.

"It's a little Nieman Marcus-y," said Dennis Szefel, hospitality president, of the offerings modeled after the Dallas retailer known for its extravagant Christmas catalog. "All of that bubbled up from the individual locations."

Delaware North's wares at "shop-delawarenorth.com" are part of an emerging public push to create a brand name for the $2 billion company that has long held onto a vague, low-key image. Now it wants people to associate the name Delaware North with "innovative, delightful and once-in-a-lifetime" meals, lodgings and shopping, said Judy Lucas, manager of corporate communications and marketing.

"That's going to help us grow," she said, adding that more branding plans are still developing. "Even for Buffalo, we're a quiet company."

Delaware North is already vast. Its seven divisions employ some 40,000 people who manage, entertain, cook, sell and serve as part of site ownership or management contracts negotiated with 17 parks and resorts, eight racetracks, 25 airports and about 50 sports stadiums in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and England.

As Delaware North extends its reach, the Web site store is a new way show off the 90-year-old company. Last year's annual report said, ". . . anonymity is no longer a strategy."

"I don't know that it was a strategy," said Lucas. "I think that's just kind of the way things worked out."

The desire for a stronger brand name comes as the company gets bigger and buys more of its own travel destinations. In the past four years, it bought the Tenaya Lodge outside Yosemite, a racetrack in West Virginia and a hot spring resort in British Columbia.

>Customer comments

This year, even its traditional concession offerings will broaden as Delaware North takes over food service at the giant new Wembley soccer stadium opening this summer outside London, becoming the world's largest with 90,000 seats. "It's important that even on a global basis the Delaware North brand is recognized," Lucas said.

Branding is an essential part of good business, explained one Niagara University specialist. "A brand represents the promise they make to their target audience. That's how you're identified in the market place," said Fred Heuer, assistant vice president for marketing at Niagara University, who once taught the subject.

"Many people say branding is part of a corporate vision," Heuer said. "Not only where they are but where they want to be."

Delaware North's goals include tracking customer service to be sure that stays in line with the upscale brand promise. A year and a half ago, the company adopted a program that asks customers, by e-mail, mail, and comment card, what they think.

"We take those responses, we measure them and analyze them and compare them from quarter to quarter," said Lucas, adding that the results are used when trying for new contracts. "It's all about exceeding the customer expectation."

The company, with downtown offices on the top six floors of the Key Center, began in 1915 with three brothers selling popcorn and programs at Main Street's burlesque theaters. CEO Jeremy Jacobs Sr., son of one of the founding brothers, is now ranked 746th on the Forbes magazine billionaire list, and is owner of the Boston Bruins. The NHL team plays in the TD Banknorth Garden, which is owned by his company.

The online store's Web pages are a glimpse inside the Delaware North behemoth he created. Click "The Stylish Paw" to see a photo of a small white dog draped with a strand of pearls and a note that says, "Coming soon." The boutique, a Delaware North brand, is now in the Detroit airport selling luxury pet shampoo and other accoutrements. Eventually, its line will sell online.

The local ad designer, who has worked on branding for the last few years, made a point of using pictures to evoke more than products for sale. Olive oil hotel soaps -- $3.95 each -- are on view next to a dark tiled tub with a bright lily bouquet. One Web frame of a smiling woman collapsing into an Adirondack chair is near a straight shot of a $200 twig table from Yellowstone park's gift shops.

"You want to sort of tantalize the senses with an emotion," said Rob Wynne, president of Wynne Creative Group on Franklin Street in Buffalo. "It just maybe teases me that there's a little bit more going on here."

He has worked on incorporating a look that goes with the four-year-old motto -- "It's all about the experience" -- on the corporate Web site, the annual report, the Web shop and soon, a museum-style exhibit inside company offices.

While Web counts reveal people have been looking over Navajo rugs and retro-style hotel china sets, the promise of a Delaware North travel experience has been the surprise big seller: So many gift certificates, redeemable at nine locations, have sold so well that the company must print a new series sooner than expected.

People have signed to apply them to the hot springs resort, a Yosemite lodge and the West Virginia race track. For Lucas and Szefel, it is the $98,000, five-day tour of the California park that tempts. "That's the one that stuck in my mind," he said.

>Private climbing lessons

The packages pays for four guests who fly in by private jet and take a black Mercedes limousine to the park's historic Ahwahnee hotel. The adventure includes an outfitting shopping spree and dinner on a private suite balcony prepared by a master chef who will make all the meals for the trip.

The days that follow include stays around the park, private climbing lessons and a private wrangler guided horseback trip to the shores of Cathedral Lake for a gourmet picnic. On one evening a guide and state-of-the-art telescope will offer star scape studies. On the last day, breakfast in bed will be followed by a trip to the private jet in a white Jaguar limo.

"We could really make these experiences happen for you," said Szefel. "I think that says a lot about Delaware North."

e-mail: mkearns@buffnews.com

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