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The changing face of tourism in Buffalo

America’s favorite city. One of the top places to see in 2016. A top 10 food city in America.

These are the accolades that Travel + Leisure, CNN and National Geographic, respectively, have showered upon Buffalo recently — and they’re just the beginning. Over the past few years, writers from USA Today, The New York Times, popular travel media and newspapers nationwide have visited the Queen City and shared their intrigue and, ultimately, their love for Buffalo’s food, architecture, cultural sites, history and more with readers.

When these articles surface, you’ll often see them light up on social media, as locals brim with pride that Buffalo is finally getting the recognition it deserves. But, has the growing buzz for the city and its resurgence translated into more visitors? According to Visit Buffalo Niagara (VBN) — the organization charged with marketing our city as a destination for tourism and conventions — the answer is a resounding “yes.”

“We’ve got a new story to tell,” said Patrick Kaler, VBN president and CEO. “With all the great things happening here, visitors are really curious about Buffalo and are interested and excited to come to Buffalo because it’s not the same city they’re used to.”

Visit Buffalo Niagara President Patrick Kaler is finding new ways to market the region, including a focus on winter offerings and emerging medical tourism. (Dave Jarosz)

According to VBN, Buffalo welcomed more than 8 million visitors last year, an increase over 2014, and tourism represents a $1.6 billion industry in Erie County, with millions spent annually on lodging, recreation, retail, transportation and restaurants. Kaler estimates close to $900 million has been invested over the past 10 years on infrastructure improvements, cultural assets, hotels and large-scale projects like the Medical Campus — all of which he expects will only increase Buffalo’s popularity as a destination in the next decade.

Other area sites report similar positive trends. This fall, the Darwin D. Martin House will herald the end of a massive restoration to return the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed masterpiece to its 1907 appearance. Mary Roberts, executive director, said attendance has tripled over the past 10 years to more than 30,000 visitors annually. Moreover, the portion of those visitors from outside of Western New York has swelled from 59 percent in 2007 to nearly 73 percent last year.

“Buffalo is hot — and it’s getting hotter. There’s no doubt about it,” Roberts said. “The tide is turning in terms of national publicity about the Martin House and our city. It seems as if we were always pitching people to come, look and see, and now they’re calling us.”

Mary Roberts, executive director of the Darwin D. Martin House, said attendance there has tripled over the past 10 years - and 73 percent of visitors are from outside WNY. (Dave Jarosz)

When they arrive, journalists and visitors find many of the same attributes that keep residents in town — authenticity, friendly people, a hard-working spirit — and share those qualities in articles and reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp. Kaler said those honest, positive reports are critical to VBN’s marketing plan, particularly given its limited budget (about $4.3 million in 2015).

“Last year, we were able to influence well over 230 stories, and some of them, of course, went viral in other ways. They had a media value of $4.1 million,” he said. “Now you’re getting that first-person account of somebody who has come here and experienced the destination. It adds to the authenticity and the genuine nature of how we position the overall destination.”

For individual sites, the recognition from national and international press has helped attract more visitors, too. This winter, Katie Couric highlighted Buffalo’s rebirth for Yahoo News, with stops at the West Side Bazaar, 43North and Canalside.

“It was excellent that the Bazaar was highlighted on a national level,” said Ben Bissell, executive director of the Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI), which oversees the Bazaar. “Katie loved it. The producer wanted her to move on to the next location, but she just kept talking to people. I could tell that she loved exploring how visitors, particularly millennials, were experiencing the space.”

As our overall tourism has grown, sports have led the charge. Last year, 51 percent of all hotel room nights booked by VBN were related to amateur sports, with the Northtown Center and HarborCenter driving much of that success. VBN completed a sports master plan in 2015 to identify gaps in their sports outreach; since then, the organization has secured upcoming men’s and women’s collegiate cross-country championships and is awaiting a decision on its bid to bring the Frozen Four to Buffalo.

“The NCAA uses Buffalo as a model for other cities for the men’s basketball tournament because they like what we do and we outpace other cities,” Kaler said. “We’re already ahead of other cities who are hosting in 2017.”

The number two reason visitors come to Buffalo is meetings and conventions, representing nearly 40 percent of VBN’s hotel room bookings last year, followed by group and international tours.
For both meeting planners and tourists, a major draw is the city’s arts, culture and architecture — sites like the Martin House and Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

“Chicago and Buffalo are the only two American cities where you can go to see [work by] Wright, Sullivan, Richardson and Saarinen, and Buffalo has grain elevators like nobody else,” said Roberts. “People learn about Buffalo’s architectural treasures all across America, and now they’re finding it’s time to come back and see them.”

As executive director of Explore Buffalo, Brad Hahn interacts with many out-of-towners as he leads tours by foot, bus, bike and kayak. He said his most popular tours are the Silo City and Elevator Alley tours of the grain elevators, as well as the Brewing Buffalo and Delaware Avenue Mansion experiences.

Kayak tours are a draw for out-of-towners (and locals) who want to explore Buffalo’s industrial past.

“It’s not unusual for out-of-town guests to sometimes have a more comprehensive perception of Buffalo and its history and architecture than local residents,” Hahn said. “I see Buffalo gaining a reputation for being a high-quality destination for a well-rounded cultural experience combining architecture, visual and performing arts, a thriving restaurant scene, craft breweries and distilleries, and more.”

Kaler said another key pillar of local tourism is shopping, mostly because of Canadians coming across the border. He said the Walden Galleria and Niagara Falls Fashion Outlets are the initial draw, but VBN tries to encourage travelers to hit the Elmwood Village, Hertel Avenue and other regional retail destinations through its comprehensive Shopping Guide.

Outdoor and water recreation increasingly attract visitors, as well, particularly as Canalside and the Outer Harbor prosper and increase their family-friendly programming — during all seasons.
“Winter is becoming more of a draw too because of Canalside and the ice bikes,” Kaler said. “We’re embracing it. When I first came to Buffalo, we shied away from [promoting] winter and snow, but you know what — it snows here, let’s embrace it. We’ve got to change the story on snow.”

Another major draw, Kaler said, is of course Niagara Falls — it’s why the organization is called Visit Buffalo Niagara.

“It’s kind of the closer for us,” he said. “So many people think Buffalo is a suburb of New York City, but they know where Niagara Falls is, so that offers a sense of place. It plays into our value proposition and the overall package we’re able to offer.”

Among the region’s growing draws are higher education, with our concentrated assortment of colleges attracting conferences and other events; technology-related travel, driven by the city’s growing startup scene; and historic preservation, as history and architecture buffs come to view our reuse and conversion projects for themselves. Medical tourism also rises every year as new facilities open along the medical corridor.

“The Medical Campus definitely has a role in tourism,” Kaler said. “People may come here for a procedure because it’s cheaper than, say, New York City, and they can’t just go home. They may go to the Albright-Knox and take a stroll to recuperate, or go to a restaurant, and typically they bring a family member or two.

“It also plays into our meetings and conventions,” he continued. “We’re not to the point where we can bring in a high-end physician meeting, but we are bringing in trainings for pharmaceuticals or other medical meetings.”

And then there are chicken wings. According to a recent University of Florida report, food is the highest category of travel spending, and 74 million Americans will either choose a destination based on its culinary activities or seek out local culinary activities after selecting a destination.

Laura Reed owns and operates Buffalo Bites Tours, which offers food-focused tours of the Elmwood Village and East Aurora with stops at restaurants, chocolate shops and other favorites. She plans to expand to two new locations this year.

“Travelers want local, authentic experiences,” said Reed, who listed our growing downtown restaurant scene as one of Buffalo’s greatest strengths as a food destination. “As our food and craft beer scene continues to grow, so will our reputation as a foodie town. I think we are still in the early stages of getting the word out there.”

All of this — our food, architecture, cultural sites, sports and more — definitely has bloggers, journalists, visitors and locals talking, and it’s creating a big impact. Kaler said this growing demand is why so many hotels are opening across the city at different price points to attract varying clienteles. Plus, according to VBN, nearly 30,000 Erie County jobs are tourism-related, and the sales tax generated by visitors alone reduces the tax burden on every Erie County household by more than $500.

“We had so many people who called after Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts were here and said, ‘Well, if the Rolling Stones came, we should too,’” said Roberts of the Martin House. “If we make Harper’s Bazaar or Travel + Leisure, those are the kind of things people pay attention to. They might not do it right away, but they tuck that away and think about them when they’re planning their next vacation.”

So, to everyone visiting Buffalo this fall, we say welcome. Enjoy your stay — and tell your friends.

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