The plush “I Love New York Hospitality Suite” at Ralph Wilson Stadium offers game-day advantages that most of us can only envy when attending a Buffalo Bills game.
It’s warm. It affords a great view. And, for some games, there’s plenty of room to stretch or pace.
That’s because fewer than half of the seats in the suite were used for the Bills’ seven football games in Orchard Park this past season.
The 16-seat suite sat empty for the final two home games of its inaugural season at the stadium – Nov. 17 and Dec. 22 – against the division rivals New York Jets and Miami Dolphins, respectively, according to Buffalo Niagara Enterprise’s recent “End of Season Final Report.”
One could say the suite’s overall numbers add up to a losing 54-58 record: 54 seats occupied in 2013; 58 vacant.
But organizers don’t see it that way.
“Close to 60 people came in to visit,” said Thomas A. Kucharski, president and CEO of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, the organization with the responsibility of attracting business to the region and managing the suite for Empire State Development Corp.
“All things considered, for the first time doing it, it was very successful,” Kucharski said.
The report reveals that 46 of the 54 people who used the suite did so during the first three home games of the year. All were in September.
The suite in Ralph Wilson Stadium was set aside for the state to woo business executives and promote tourism. It was part of the financial deal that the state and county reached to contribute toward the cost of renovating the stadium.
The suite caused some controversy last spring when critics wondered whether it was a legitimate economic-development tool or a perk for state officials.
But no one predicted that the suite would sit unused for two games.
“It happened very fast,” Kucharski said of the suite’s availability.
Organizers got a late jump because the new lease involving the Bills, New York State and Erie County that provided for the suite wasn’t finalized until mid-March last year for the 2013 season that began Sept. 8. That made it tough to plan ahead, he said.
Also, “We had a bunch of folks cancel at the last minute,” Kucharski said. “It’s traditionally hit-or-miss. The holiday times are tough.”
Like the team on the field, however, hope springs eternal for the upcoming season.
“This year will be bigger and better because we’ll have a whole year to plan,” Kucharski said.
The suite, located near Section 140 in a lower bowl corner near the scoreboard, isn’t an easy ticket to obtain.
State officials have said that use of the suite by state agencies or officials must be approved through Empire State Development.
A highly selective application process is required to ensure that the only people attending are those who have the potential to bring jobs, tourism, trade or venture capital to the Buffalo Niagara region. This means that politicians, their friends or family, lobbyists or others with potential political conflicts need not apply.
“We don’t want that in the box,” Kucharski said.
The manifest of those who watched games from the suite bears that out.
They are not household names.
For example, among those attending were: Jeremiah Shamess. David Cooley. John MacNamera. David Woodiwiss. Ron Jasinski. Mark Burns. Ben Williams.
They’re the seven Canadian commercial real estate brokers from Toronto, who along with a pair of Erie, Pa., journalists, were hosted by Kucharski and others from Visit Buffalo Niagara. All attended the home opener against New England.
The brokers were reported to be potential “lead generators” for attracting business to the region from a key market: Canada.
Erie Times-News Executive Editor Rick Sayer and his wife, Lenore Skomal, a Times-News contributing writer, also attended.
Skomal followed up by writing a short article for the Erie newspaper in October highlighting the attractions in Buffalo, including sights in Elmwood Village, as well as the Lafayette and Statler hotels and the Bills game. Sayer referred comment to Skomal. She could not be reached to comment Thursday.
A freelance husband-wife journalist and photographer team from Hamilton, Ont., attended the second home game, Sept. 15 against Carolina, to scout “stories about Buffalo” for the Toronto Star and other newspapers.
“We did use this for media-orientation purposes,” said Edward J. Healy, vice president for marketing at Visit Buffalo Niagara. “For us, it’s a great tool to have at our disposal to get people to come to Buffalo and get to know our community.
“Ninety-nine times out of 100, if we get people here, it’s a revelation to them.”
Visit Buffalo Niagara also used the Nov. 3 game against Kansas City to host Norm Page from USA Sled Hockey “to cultivate future amateur hockey event business in Buffalo.”
The Sept. 29 home game against Baltimore was the only game where all 16 seats were occupied in the suite, although four of them – associated with the University at Buffalo – individually paid for their own tickets, the report showed. The use of the suite served as a “welcoming reception” for Bright Buffalo Niagara’s events the following two days when strategies were developed for “increasing seed funding for high-tech companies in Western New York” leading to helping develop companies and new jobs.
Sam Hoyt, regional president of the Empire State Development, would not comment about the suite’s use. His office referred queries to Buffalo Niagara Enterprise.
According to lease documents, an Empire State Development subsidiary, Erie County Stadium Corp., has access to the suite with up to 16 seats for all Bills games and events. The suite is to be used for “encouraging and fostering economic development, tourism and public awareness for the City of Buffalo, Erie County and the State of New York,” as well as “charitable or public functions.”
The Bills provide up to 16 tickets to the state for access to the suite on game days, as well as four parking passes, according to lease documents. The state pays for any food and beverage costs in the suite.