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Tourism chief aims to attract cultural visitors

Dottie Gallagher-Cohen had a busy 2011 as president and chief executive officer of Visit Buffalo Niagara. The tourism agency launched its "Buffalo: For Real" campaign and welcomed visitors for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's conference, an event years in the making. Now her organization is gearing up for a new tourism season, with a continued focus on attracting cultural tourists and capitalizing on cross-border visits by Canadians.

>Q: What is the outlook for the 2012 season?

A: In 2011, we finally sort of broke past the dip from the recession. We set a record for demand for hotel rooms in 2011. We feel pretty good about where we're going to be this summer. A couple of big projects are in sort of key stages: the [Darwin] Martin House restoration is nearly finished, Graycliff's doing a lot out there, Erie Canal Harbor's got some improvements there. So we're feeling we'll have a strong season.

>Q: How does $4-per-gallon gas affect Buffalo as a tourist market?

A: It sort of cuts both ways, really, because people who would have traveled further now travel closer. And you have to remember we are in this wonderful geography with our proximity to Toronto and Erie and Cleveland and all that. We don't really see that direct correlation between gas prices and visitation.

>Q: How much activity is there in amateur sports?

A: We are bidding on a number of large amateur athletic events that relate to hockey and to sled hockey, which could be potentially very large for us.

Amateur athletics is really the bread and butter of our business. It represents about 40 percent of all the business we book. In the convention/meeting space, we have some sort of limitations of our physical ability -- 110,000 square feet at the convention center, and 10,000 [hotel] rooms. There are just certain segments we can compete for in the convention business, but in amateur athletics, we've gotten these great facilities.

We've commissioned a market development study from the National Association of Sports Commissions to do a facilities analysis, like how competitive are our facilities right now and where should the community be making its investments for the biggest return on investment. Also, what sports, where are there opportunities. We expect that report to come out sometime in early June, and that will really serve as a business plan for the [Buffalo Niagara] Sports Commission as we move forward. You can't take that business for granted.

>Q: That same organization, the National Association of Sports Commissions, said harsh things about the Convention Center's first floor and the condition of Main Street in turning down Buffalo's bid for its conference. How do you overcome those types of comments?

A: I think there's an opportunity side of that, which is to sort of point out our weaknesses in a way that helps the community focus on addressing them. We were very disappointed to lose that business, but we do lose business. We get 800 or so leads a year; we don't land all that business.

In this particular case, because we have such a strong presence in amateur athletics and because in the process we got such positive feedback, we lost the business because of things we can't control. That was what was sort of disappointing about it. I feel confident that some of the things they cited are really in the process of being addressed.

>Q: Can you quantify a follow-up effect of hosting the National Trust conference last October?

A: What the public was seeing was sort of the event itself. But the sort of spinoff benefit from the conference began long before the conference got here. We got some great press, we were able to land some good stories about our architecture because we had gotten the [National] Trust conference. We were marketing to that segment for five years, by advertising in Preservation magazine, etc., and during the Trust conference got great press in those places and then press outside of those places. So for us, the event itself was sort of part of the continuum of all this marketing.

What we think the legacy of that project is, first of all -- and this is a benefit I don't think I fully anticipated -- is that the community now understands sort of the breadth of the opportunity as it relates to our art, architecture and history assets. People may have been doubtful -- why would people come here, would they really? -- and then we have 2,500 people coming here saying, 'Oh my God, this is incredible, we didn't expect it to be this good.'

And we are working toward what we hope to be able to create for the future is some sort of architecture and design week event. And cities like San Francisco and Palm Springs and a few other cities that have really significant architectural assets put together these festivals.

>Q: Talk about the status of our hotels. Do they need upgrades? Does the market need more rooms?

A: I think there are pockets where we need more rooms, and I think there are properties that aren't doing well because they aren't great properties. I think it's a mix. There is no one answer to that question. The question is really looking at the geography and looking at the business that is around where that potential development is, and can that development be sustained? I will tell you that developers appear to see an opportunity downtown.

>Q: How can Buffalo build its tourism base?

A: I'm excited that the Regional Council [for economic development] has tourism as one of the key industries, because we're at this pivotal point where we have to ask ourselves, how do we actually grow tourism here? In my opinion, we've done the easy stuff. We don't have this treasure trove of $100 million to build a new convention center, and nor would I recommend that we do. But how do we grow tourism? And my belief is that the opportunity for us is in this untapped cultural tourism sector. In this market we have a really compelling opportunity. Cultural tourists spend on average about $1,000 [during a vacation] compared to a typical traveler who spends about $650.

>Q: Are there enough cultural tourists out there to make an economic impact?

A: Absolutely. You don't have to be a cultural tourist 100 percent of the time. When I take my kids to Florida to the beach, I'm not a cultural tourist. But when I take them to Washington, D.C., for a history trip, I am. Not only do we think there's a lot of them, we think we're not reaching all of them.

>Q: You were hired for this job when Chris Collins was county executive. Do you feel secure in your position with Mark Poloncarz now in office?

A: I had no relationship with Chris before I started this job and I did not know Mark very well before he was elected. I would say the transitions are always a little nerve-racking, and this isn't about me personally but about some of the organization, because we have five board members that change, and you just don't know what is Mark's view on tourism sort of going forward and all that.

But what I would tell you is the transition has really been seamless. The [Poloncarz] administration's been great to work with, the board appointments were fantastic. I understand that transparency is sort of the key to a good relationship with elected officials, and since I've been here particularly something I've really focused on is just being a transparent organization, erring on the side of over-communicating, because people need to understand what we do. And it's challenging for us, because if we're doing our job, we're not communicating in the market, we're communicating outside the market, to people who don't live here.