• Travel and Fanfare

Destination Niagara USA Gearing-up for Travel Demand

By David Robinson

With Covid-19 disrupting so much of Buffalo Niagara's everyday life and its economic foundation, getting back to normal won't happen overnight. We asked a group of Buffalo Niagara leaders what the region needs to do to emerge from the pandemic stronger. John Percy is waiting for better days. With travel and tourism sharply curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic, Percy, the president and CEO of Destination Niagara USA, is laying the groundwork to capture the hearts and minds of travelers who are waiting for the chance to hit the road once the pandemic subsides.

What are you looking for when things go back to normal? What we're anticipating is a return of 60% of 2019 numbers in 2021. There is such a pent-up demand within people that want to travel. They feel isolated and smothered. And so the pent-up demand will be larger than we've ever seen in any past crisis.

How do you take advantage of that? We're having heavy discussions now with all of our partners – meaning our ad agency, our public relations agency and our digital advertising agency – to make sure that we're ahead of it and trying to be as creative as we can. Everybody is going to be out there trying to solicit and grab that customer's wallet. And so we have to be unique and creative, and out of the box in everything we do so that we stand out.

Do you think that when that kind of gush comes, people will stick their toe into travel and stay closer to home or within driving distance at first? Or is it going to be time to go across country or from one continent to the other? I think you're still going to see that apprehension in that first six months after vaccines. So you're still going to see that closer to home travel, maybe four to six hours. And then as things start to lighten up, it's an outer circle that keeps growing. So that circle grows in a month to eight hours and then maybe to 10 hours and then to 12-hour travel. We are so leisure-based, we're accessible, we're drivable, we're affordable, and we have a lot of open spaces or rural open spaces. That's been our campaign – wide-open spaces, now open for adventure. It has proved very well for us this summer.

It ended up not being a great summer, that's for sure, but better than we anticipated sitting back on June 15. I think 2021 and 2022, and 2023 are going to be phenomenal years for tourism. Tourism is the most resilient industry. We are the hardest hit, the first to always be hit, but always the first to bounce back.

What would you like to see the Western New York tourism industry doing to get ready for this? We need to stay out in the marketplace with our advertising as strong we can possibly afford out of the budget that we have. How do you think the individual operators, the hotel owners, the tourism businesses, with the hit that they've taken, are going to be able to rebound? I think it's far more difficult on a mom-and-pop-owned property, versus some of our larger corporate brands. Certain sectors, like limited service properties, have had a difficult time with this. Full service properties here did OK.

It wasn't a gangbuster year, that's for certain. But the mom-and-pops have certainly taken a huge hit. Will they be able to withstand this is still the question to be answered. But if you've been able to withstand it, they've got to get ready, because the floodgates will open up, and we will be back to normal levels in 2022 and even more so by 2023. How do you see travel and tourism changing? It changed after 9/11, and I think it'll change here. Until people are fully comfortable, I think grab-and-go breakfast options, keyless entry into hotel rooms will become a stronger element going forward because people don't want to touch things. They'll still have a fear.

I think safety and health are still going to remain at the forefront of our industry for the next couple of years. Do you do you think there's an opportunity here for Niagara Falls to reintroduce itself to a large segment of the population across the Northeast? Absolutely. And I think we've already taken advantage of that. I think customers that would have been traveling abroad, or traveling to Orlando, or to Las Vegas, or some other popular destination have given us a second look.

What’s going to happen when the Canadian border reopens? Canadians are resilient. When the exchange rate is so not in their favor, they have a tendency to just come over and shop for an item that they need and go back. And so it's always shop, dine, stay in that order, with the exchange rate.

It's impacted our retail sales greatly not having the border open. I don't think there will be any hesitation to cross over once the vaccine is there. What about the flip side for the traveler who's saying, I'm gonna go to Niagara Falls, but maybe I'm going to the Canadian side. I'm not gonna lie. With the border closed, it has helped our numbers a little bit this past six months, and it will continue to do so while the border is closed.

That's always our challenge: Getting customers to realize that Niagara Falls, USA, exists. We rebranded three years ago to try to be as strategic as we can. We don't mind you going to Canada, but we want you to at least give the U.S. side an opportunity because there are products here that are unique to the U.S. side.

I wish I had $100 million budget, where I could change people's brains and minds. But we do have limited dollars and try to be as strategic and as effective with those as we can. The border being closed has been a huge disadvantage to restaurants and to retail, but not so much to the attractions and the hotels here because we've been able to keep some of that customer base here on this side.

What about broader international travel? We want that international customer back from Europe, Asia and beyond. We've got to reenter those markets very strategically, in a timely fashion and hope that that pent-up demand is even stronger on international side than even on the domestic side. International travelers spend more and stay longer in the U.S., so it's important that we recapture those dollars. They're big dollars and they really impact a tourism economy to a greater extent than the domestic customer. What percentage of visitors are international but not from Canada?

Probably 10% to 15% of our total customer base here is international. That's not a scientific figure because we have not conducted as much international research as we'd like to. But they do spend big dollars here.

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