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NIAGARA FALLS – John Percy, president and chief executive officer of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., doesn’t remember the exact details of his first visit to this area as a child, but he knows that it was “awe-inspiring.”

Percy, who was born in Tennessee and raised in the Detroit area, said his family would stop in Niagara Falls when making the trek to New England to see his paternal grandmother.

“I’ve often thought about how odd it is that I would stop here with my family as a child, and now I promote this destination worldwide,” he said with a laugh. “I remember the falls as being larger than life. I remember their size and magnitude.”

Fast forward to today, when Percy and his staff market Niagara Falls – and this entire region – to visitors near and far, heavily advertising within a 600-mile radius but also gaining a foothold in the tourism industry as far away as China.

Robert Emerson, executive director of Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown, said he has seen his number of visitors recently double, to 152,000 last year. He said his largest growth has been in international tourists, particularly those from China, and he attributed it solely to the efforts of the NTCC.

“Our domestic market has remained stable, but our growth has all been in international tourists, particularly Asian visitors,” Emerson said. “We are a nonprofit organization, so we don’t have the budget to market ourselves in China or India, or even Europe, so it’s very clear to us that the efforts of the NTCC, particularly over the past five years, have been attracting international visitors to our region.”

And he pointed out that the fort is but one stop in the region for many of these visitors.

“Many of them might start out here and spend an hour, but then they are visiting other places, so the benefits of bringing in all of these groups here reach far beyond the fort,” he said. “I think it’s terrific.”

As we embark on “National Travel and Tourism Week” the first full week of May, it’s timely that Percy recently took a few moments from his busy schedule to talk about the region and his organization’s efforts to market it.

When did you join the NTCC?

I moved here 25 years ago from the Detroit area as a job promotion with Cordish Co. as marketing director of the Rainbow Centre. That was March 1989. I became marketing director at the Thruway Mall from 1991 to 1993, the Galleria mall from ’93 to ’97. I was at what was then the Prime Outlet Mall for nine months, then became vice president of tourism for the Niagara Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau from 1998 to 2003. In 2003, that organization and the Niagara County Tourism Office dissolved to create a new corporation – the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. For the first three years, I was the vice president of sales and marketing, then became president and CEO in June 2006.

What are the biggest changes in direction you’ve seen in the eight years you’ve been at the helm?

People will sometimes say, ‘Nothing’s changed here,’ but I’ve seen so much evolve and change here in my 25 years in this area. The Niagara Falls Conference and Event Center and Giacomo Hotel (former United Office Building) were boarded shut and are now thriving. Old Falls Street has been revamped. Niagara County Community College at the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute is open. The Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel is growing.

This is exciting for us. We see changes and take it to market, so there’s always something new and fresh to talk about. And it’s not just Niagara Falls. Lewiston, for example, has evolved into a mini-destination itself, with Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours there. There’s the Niagara Wine Trail, which started with one winery and last year had 20 wineries.

Where does your budget come from?

Forty percent comes from the bed tax, from the City of Niagara Falls, the City of Lockport and Niagara County; 40 percent comes from the casino compact dollars; and the rest comes from private revenue and grants.

The bed tax revenue has increased 70 percent in the past 10 years – and that was with existing or less inventory (hotel rooms), and the average daily rate has risen nearly 40 percent. These are exciting numbers, especially because of the economic downturn we experienced. These are signs of a healthy destination.

Where will you be concentrating your efforts in the near future?

The international market – there are opportunities for us to expand, especially in the Chinese and Chinese-American markets. We have partnered with Brand USA, a national tourism organization based in Washington, because we can’t afford a massive campaign in the international markets.

We want to look at expanding the honeymoon and weddings market. We feel there’s great validity to marketing this as a honeymoon and wedding destination, with all of that nostalgia.

We want to look at the Niagara Falls International Airport – the places that planes fly to from our airport, like Florida and Myrtle Beach. We want to bring that market here and introduce Niagara Falls as an attractive destination to visit year-round.

Where has your concentration, historically, been?

It’s all about educating the audience. We want people to extend their stay here and spend additional dollars. Our core audience has been “drive traffic,” because 78 percent of our visitors come here in their own motor vehicles. We concentrate on Cleveland, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Erie and Central New York.

We want people to know that they can still see Niagara Falls without needing a passport. In fact, we have the advantage of being “up close and powerful,” which separates us from Canada. In Canada, they do have a lovely, panoramic view, but the ability to get up close is exclusive to us in Niagara Falls, USA, and we need to market that. We would like people to visit both sides, of course, but you don’t have to have a passport to visit our side.

What’s the best part about being in this business today?

I’ve been here 25 years, but the vitality and energy I see in this entire region right now is infectious. And I’ve seen the work people have done through the years with passion and dedication finally coming to fruition.

And it’s not just the cranes you see in Buffalo and Niagara Falls. I talk to younger people, and they’re staying here now instead of leaving. We have eight new hotels on the drawing board in Niagara Falls alone, and that’s exciting for us. They don’t build hotels in unhealthy destinations. I feel the governor (Andrew M. Cuomo) has a vision for this region. Let’s ride that wave and have that partnership – for everyone in this region.