As work around the Buffalo waterfront kicks into overdrive this spring, it is critical that the region begin thinking about the best ways to attract visitors to the attractions and hotels that are springing up there, and in the city’s suburbs. One essential component of that task is promotion, and a new report from Visit Buffalo Niagara makes a persuasive case that Erie County continues to fall short of what it needs to do.
In part, this is a problem of money. Visit Buffalo Niagara, Erie County’s agency for promoting tourism, is funded at a level that can only be described as paltry. While Buffalo’s operation was funded last year at about $3.9 million, Cleveland had nearly $9 million to work with. Pittsburgh, Pa., was funded in 2011 at $9.4 million.
Each of those cities is somewhat larger than Buffalo, but not that much. What is more, Buffalo falls short in comparison with the report’s two similar-sized cities, Grand Rapids, Mich., funded at $5.3 million, and Milwaukee, Wis., funded at $7.6 million. Buffalo can’t hope to do the job it needs to do without adequate funding.
Funding in other cities is typically based on a bed tax charged to hotel guests. That’s how it worked – sort of – in Erie County, until the red budget/green budget fiasco of 2004, when the money was absorbed into the general fund, with tourism promotion receiving whatever amount politicians wanted.
According to data provided by Visit Buffalo Niagara, in 2000, the agency received $2.9 million of $5.5 million in bed tax revenues, or about 53 percent. Last year, it received just $3.3 million of a much larger revenue stream – $9.1 million in bed taxes – or just 36 percent. Clearly, there is room for growth, and more than that, justification, as well. Tourism promotion pays.
Two statistics are revealing. Every dollar invested in tourism promotion produced $32 in spending by visitors, according to Visit Buffalo Niagara. Even more compelling, a $100,000 digital marketing campaign last year generated 4,150 visitor parties that spent nearly $4 million, a return on investment of about 40-to-1.
There is also a growing use for promotion. Over the next three years, nearly 1,500 new hotel rooms are expected to come on line, more than have been added over the past 12 years. Those rooms could serve visitors who have more reasons than ever to visit Buffalo, as the waterfront develops, as the Buffalo Sabres new public hockey rinks are constructed, as the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus expands and as word continues to spread about the city’s architectural treasures, including the Richardson Towers, now undergoing reinvention.
No one should believe that a higher budget for tourism promotion is the magic bullet that will turn Buffalo into Times Square. It won’t. But it will be difficult even to meet our potential – which is significant and growing – unless it is able to compete in the marketplace for tourist dollars. At today’s funding levels, we cannot.
That is what Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and the County Legislature should be weighing as they think about how much to allocate to Visit Buffalo Niagara in the next county budget. We should at least match the funding level of similar-sized cities if we are to meet the needs of a growing and important component of the Western New York economy.