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NCAA tournament brought in $5.2 million, tourism exec says

Buffalo jumped through hoops to host the second and third rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and the result was a big score for the Queen City, according to estimates from Visit Buffalo Niagara.

During the three days that the big games were at First Niagara Center downtown, more than 18,000 fans came to town and spent an estimated $5.2 million, selling out the seats and filling up the hotels and restaurants, while giving Buffalo a chance to showcase its hospitality, said Patrick Kaler, the new CEO of the former Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Moreover, Buffalo recorded the highest tally of presale tickets of any of the NCAA tournament sites – even before Selection Sunday when the teams were announced.

“People were excited about coming to Buffalo even before we knew what teams were coming,” he said in a presentation to the Buffalo Place board of directors Wednesday morning. “Having Syracuse playing here was a very great thing for us.”

And despite the Orange’s loss Saturday, he said, fans stayed around Saturday night and into Sunday to take in some of the attractions and other venues. “We know they were going to breakfast and doing other things,” he said. “It online “impressions” using that code – which was even used to help link a fan who had forgotten a needed allergy medication to a 24-hour pharmacy where he could get it.

Officials also gave out $3,000 worth of gift certificates for admission to various destinations in the area, using “random acts of kindness” to dole them out, along with free Spot Coffee and donuts from Paula’s Donuts at the host hotels. Kaler was busy giving out nine $100 gift certificates at First Niagara Center to fans who recognized him from his online picture and found him during halftime as part of a contest.

“It really took the entire community to put this on,” he said. “We just can’t do these things on our own. Being able to work together, we really showed Buffalo off ... We really came together as a city.”

He said the city received high praise, including from the NCAA, which touted Buffalo as an example to other cities of how to do it right. Even the downtown construction activity wasn’t a turnoff, he said, as people could see there was a lot going on and wondered what it would be like when finished.

“People were excited to see the construction. It wasn’t a hindrance,” he said.

“We know we’ll get this tournament back in three to five years, and they’ll come back to a completely different destination once again.”

Kaler said VBN is now eyeing other amateur sports opportunities coming up, including the Eastern Zone Swimming 2014 Speedo Championship Series Long Course and Super Sectional at Erie Community College’s Flickinger Center, the Girls Tier II youth hockey national championship in April at the Northtown Center in Amherst and the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association World Tournament at the Hamburg Fairgrounds. Two events are already “on the books” for HarborCenter in November, and Kaler said hopes are high for landing the U.S. speedskating short-course trials.

The new head of the tourism bureau, who joined the agency Jan. 6 after a career that has taken him to Illinois, Lake Tahoe, Los Angeles and Northern Virginia, also updated Buffalo Place about the agency’s other efforts. He cited the success of its current Canadian marketing campaign and said it plans to invest another $500,000 this year into another campaign that is also funded by Niagara Falls Tourism, Empire State Development Corp. and the New York Power Authority.

Visit Buffalo Niagara is also working with Brand USA, the U.S. tourism marketing agency. Two videos are being produced for the German and British markets to promote the Buffalo Niagara region, which is ranked 22nd among all U.S. destinations for foreign visitors, and officials will attend a tourism show in Chicago next week.

The agency is also working with state and federal lawmakers on reauthorizing the state and local hotel bed tax, producing consistent “way-finding” signage statewide, developing a statewide strategic plan for tourism, creating more tourism jobs and supporting continued funding for Brand USA.

“It’s an exciting time for somebody that does my kind of work to have all of the development that’s happening, all of the commitment from the governor with the Buffalo Billion,” Kaler said.

And it will award a contract Friday or early next week for facilitation of its own new five-year strategic plan, which will include an online survey and focus groups to engage the local business and tourism communities in the planning process. Kaler said he hopes to have that in place by August in order to start planning for 2015.

Finally, officials are working to freshen up the agency’s four-year-old website, to bring out more of the promotional content and present a more appealing image to potential visitors. “Those things need to be in the forefront of the website. Right now, they’re a little hidden,” he said. “Our current website, it served its purpose, but it’s time to freshen it up.”

Kaler also acknowledged, in response to a comment from Buffalo Common Council Member Darius Pridgen, that the agency didn’t do enough to target specific segments of the market and needs to ensure that its publicity reflects the region’s diversity.

“We as an organization have to prove our worth as far as marketing the community,” he said.