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A national cultural destination Buffalo is becoming a place tourists want to visit, consultant says

Buffalo is morphing from Rust Belt punch line into a national cultural tourism destination much faster than expected, an outside marketing consultant suggested Tuesday.

A 2006 analysis of visitation to area cultural attractions had showed that most tourists were "brainiacs" and "bifocal intellectuals" strictly interested in art and architecture, Louise Stevens of ArtsMarket told cultural leaders at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.

ZIP code data offered back then by 127,000 visitors, combined with random on-site interviews, indicated that relatively few were leisure travelers, and only 28 percent stayed in hotels, she said. Buffalo was still a mostly regional destination that had little drawing power beyond the Northeast.

At the time, Bozeman, Mont.-based ArtsMarket, which the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Tourist Bureau hired to conduct the study, predicted it would take at least five years for the city to extend its reach to other reasons.

But an examination of July 2009 tourist traffic at the same locations, and interviews with many of the visitors, revealed that the tourist profile has changed dramatically, Stevens said.

The updated data suggests that Buffalo is well on the way to becoming a national cultural destination, that the "bifurcation" between tightly focused visitors and leisure travelers, and between older and younger age groups, is disappearing, and that visitors are generally staying longer and seeing more of what the city has to offer culturally, she said.

"Buffalo's brand as this wonderful city of art, architecture, design and history is beginning to come into its own," Stevens said.

She pointed to ZIP code records showing that those who paid admission in July at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Darwin D. Martin House Complex, Roycroft Campus, Graycliff and other sites came from every corner of the United States and most of Canada.

New York City, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia in particular were much more heavily represented than three years ago, she said. Producing maps of those cities with red pushpin dots representing visitors from each, she observed that "you see dots on top of dots on top of dots" covering Manhattan, Brooklyn, Washington and central Philadelphia.

And unlike typical 2006 tourists, the recent visitors did not come to Buffalo as an afterthought after seeing Niagara Falls. "It was the opposite," Stevens said. "Almost every one of the visitors we talked to came to Buffalo as a [primary] destination."

Most went to several Buffalo-area attractions, and there was more overlapping of visits to various sites. The same people who toured art museums tended to also check out architectural, Arts & Crafts and history locations or made side trips to the Buffalo Zoo or Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.

In addition, a far greater number told ArtsMarket they were staying at least two nights, and most were lodged in area hotels. In 2006, a majority told interviewers they were day trippers or were staying with relatives or friends.

A fairly typical comment this July was, "We might go to the Falls if we have the time, but we're running out of time," Stevens reported.

Interviewees were seldom able to pinpoint what piqued their interest in Buffalo -- the many recent stories in national publications, word of mouth, advertising or the Internet, she said.

"They were not sure where they picked up the perception. They just knew. But isn't that a sign of good marketing?" Stevens said.

She acknowledged that the July ZIP code analysis and interviews simply offered a snapshot of the tourism season here, but added: "We feel the data is really solid. Your appeal and your message are coming through."

It might even be time for some chest-thumping, she told the audience at the Roosevelt Inaugural Site.

"Toot your own horn a little. You haven't acclaimed yourself, and I think you can now do that with justification."

The CVB, which commissioned the 2006 study after ArtsMarket did a similar analysis for Rochester, is heartened by the fresh data, said Edward J. Healy, vice president for marketing.

"The baseline data is not as extensive this time, but it's very encouraging," he said.

The agency's effort to "rebrand" Buffalo as a tourism hot spot is "moving forward -- getting traction," he added.

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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