BY TIM LOUIS MACALUSO
Rochester’s freeways aren’t dotted with signs pointing the way to warm sandy beaches. We don’t have a plethora of sprawling theme parks, and you can’t swim with manatees or dolphins in Lake Ontario.
“We’re not a travel destination like Orlando, Florida. And we never will be,” says Ed Hall, the president and CEO of VisitRochester, the agency that promotes tourism for Monroe County.
But Hall, who is retiring after 15 years, says Rochester and its surrounding region still pack a powerful punch for travelers. Thousands of people visit the region every year for a wide range of reasons, making a significant contribution to the local economy.
But despite the industry’s health and opportunities for growth, some officials say our travel and hospitality business is underappreciated. Hall says he’s often asked why anyone would visit Rochester.
“You find that reaction from residents in almost any community,” Hall says. “It’s sort of human nature to ignore the good things in your own back yard. Most of us when we think of a holiday or small break think of going to a different place. Our mindset is to go away from here, not to come here.”
Millions of people live within a 50 to 150 mile radius of Rochester, and many come from much smaller communities. The diversity of what Rochester has to offer those travelers is significant, Hall says.
“We can’t be all things to all people,” he says. “And we don’t try to be. But we’re darn good at some things. And we deliver value for the money.”
The travel and hospitality industry is complex, multifaceted, and it has evolved over the last 30 years. Rochester’s travel business mirrors many of those changes.
For many years, people tended to think of travel in terms of long-distance trips to Europe or warm getaways. But that definition has changed dramatically.
“The worldwide definition of a visitor in the context of tourism today is anyone who travels 50 miles or more in one direction to do anything other than commute to work,” Hall says. “Someone who lives 51 miles away from Rochester and goes to Eastview Mall to shop, we count that person as a visitor.”
Rochester’s and Monroe County’s travel and hospitality business employs 15,000 workers, more than some of our major employers, Hall says.
And the area drew roughly 1.8 million visitors in 2010, according to the tracking firm Tourism Economics. The numbers for 2011 haven’t been released yet, but Hall says he expects to see about a 3 percent increase.
The economic impact of those visitors is impressive. Visitor spending in Monroe County before the recession reached a high of $1 billion in 2007, according to data from Empire State Development. After a slight dip in 2008 and 2009, Rochester and Monroe County nearly topped $1 billion in 2010, generating $58 million in state taxes and $63.5 million in county taxes.
When the Greater Rochester-Finger Lakes Region is taken into account, tourism revenue for 2010 was $1.3 billion.
Knowing who these visitors are, why they come to this area, how long they stay, and where they spend their money is the lifeblood of VisitRochester.
“One of our strongest cards is our family-friendly offerings,” Hall says.
With institutions like the National Museum of Play at the Strong, Rochester Museum and Science Center, Memorial Art Gallery, Eastman House, and the Seneca Park Zoo, Rochester delivers on that promise, he says.
The National Museum of Play draws nearly 600,000 visitors annually, says Suzanne Seldes, a spokesperson for the museum. While many of the visitors are local, the museum draws visitors from all over the world.
But the family visitor is just one segment of Rochester’s market, Hall says. The convention and meetings market is significant, too, he says.
“We’ve been very successful in the meeting business because of the quality of our convention center,” Hall says. “Business people who hold their meetings here are very, very happy, which is demonstrated by the fact that we get an awful lot of re-bookings.”
With more than 80,000 college students and 18 colleges in the Greater Rochester area, college visitors are another segment of the Rochester market. There are also market niches, such as wine and history enthusiasts, Hall says. Mt. Hope Cemetery, the Susan B. Anthony House and Museum, and the Erie Canal are popular with the latter group.
“Let’s not forget the festivals, either,” Hall says.
The Xerox International Jazz Festival, for example, drew 182,000 people in 2011, many from outside the area.
“Because they sell their tickets online, we know exactly where they come from,” Hall says. “Last year they came from 20-plus countries and 30 states. That’s pretty remarkable for something that started only 11 years ago.”
The Lilac Festival, which drew about 400,000 visitors this year, attracts people from southern Ontario, Canada, to Pennsylvania and beyond.
Visitors who come to Rochester can also take affordable day trips to regional attractions like the Finger Lakes wineries, Letchworth State Park, Corning Museum of Glass, and Niagara Falls.
“If you’re a foodie and you’re interested in locally grown food and wineries, again we have a story to tell you,” Hall says. “Come and see where our world-class Rieslings are grown and enjoy that during the day time. Then come back at night [to the city] and dine at one of our many white tablecloth restaurants or take in a play at Geva.”
But Hall is quick to point out that the motor coaches that pull up with busloads of visitors to Highland Park for the Lilac Festival, for example, don’t usually show up on their own. Marketing and selling Rochester is VisitRochester’s main responsibility.
VisitRochester works with about $3.2 million in annual funding: about 84 percent coming from Monroe County. A portion of the county funding is derived from the hotel tax. Much of the rest comes from the support of VisitRochester’s 425 member firms to support promotional programs like “Rochester Made for Living” and “Cold Rush.” VisitRochester receives no funding from the city.
Much of the marketing consists of educating and persuading potential customers. And overcoming customer objections and concerns is part of that process. Oddly, Rochester’s winter weather, though often viewed by locals as a detriment, is not a big concern, Hall says.
“There’s a whole band of the country that has the same weather we do,” he says. “It’s kind of a straw man objection.”
But there are obstacles that VisitRochester does have to work at overcoming, Hall says.
Though downtown is safe, perceptions about crime and safety are a challenge. And downtown construction is a visual concern that may make the center city seem unattractive or confusing to some visitors, Hall says.
“We’ve tried to work with our partners in the city to put up some visual images so that people understand that something is happening, and while it looks this way now, progress is being made,” he says.
Another problem for many cities is the lack of retail downtown. Major retail lives in the suburbs, but visitors tend to stay downtown, Hall says.
Lack of reasonably priced airline flights in and out of Rochester is also a concern, says the Strong’s Seldes.
“New flights are supposed to be coming in, and that’s good news,” she says. “If you’re thinking about marketing a region, it’s critical. [Rochester] is only a 45-minute flight from New York City. Can’t we make it convenient?”
Michael Marsch, the general manager at the Radisson Hotel Rochester Riverside, says his guests are usually upbeat about what Rochester has to offer. And he has nothing but praise for VisitRochester’s efforts.
The industry is extremely competitive and every marketing tool is needed to capture new business, he says.
“You need to be aggressive and turn over every stone,” Marsch says. The hardest part is getting visitors here, he says, but once they come here, they come back.
The trend in travel and hospitality marketing is to take a regional approach, which provides opportunities for cross-promotions between hotels and various attractions, for example. Promoting the region also gives people more reasons to visit.
VisitRochester provides training to frontline service personnel such as hotel clerks and taxi drivers on answering questions and responding to negative comments. If a visitor makes a sour comment about Kodak’s financial troubles, clerks and drivers are trained to respond with a positive comment, such as noting all of the benefits of Kodak’s presence in Rochester.
But Hall says he is disappointed in the state’s lack of support for tourism, especially for the Upstate cities.
“They have not been providing us with the larger marketing umbrella that we need,” he says. “They look at New York City’s numbers and they say, ‘We’re doing just fine.’ Well, in New York City, they are. The rest of us need some help.”
The “I Love New York” marketing campaign is widely recognized for revolutionizing how travel and hospitality is marketed. But the state’s program has been dormant due to budget constraints, Hall says.
“The first series of television ads that went nationwide was amazing,” he says. “It was something none of us in this business had ever seen before and it was extremely effective. To go from that to where we are today is a problem.”