Tourism summit guests tell Buffalo: You need a new convention center
Buffalo played host to a first-of-its kind travel and tourism summit, bringing national industry leaders to town. It was a chance for local tourism leaders to learn what they're doing right, and where there's room for improvement.
The Travel Industry Summit drew national leaders from leisure travel, amateur sports and conference planning sectors to Buffalo. Local leaders in attendance included Mayor Byron Brown, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, Congressman Brian Higgins and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
For Patrick Kaler, president and chief executive officer of Visit Buffalo Niagara, the summit provided local tourism leaders an opportunity to showcase a Buffalo that has evolved significantly over the past several years.
"Truly, the purpose of this event was was to expose our national associations to what we're calling the new and unexpected Buffalo," said Kaler. "Many of these folks had never been to Buffalo, so this was their first time."
Others, meanwhile had previously been to Buffalo but were returning for the first time in many years. John Graham, CEO of the American Society of Association Executives, was one of them.
"The people there are very welcoming," he said. "The community appears to be very safe. It's very clean. The downtown offerings, there's a lot of restaurants and bars and a lot of hospitality establishments downtown which makes it very attractive as well."
But local leaders also wanted to hear feedback regarding where improvement is most needed. Visitors, including Graham, suggested the area's top priority is to build a new, updated convention space.
"The most productive model is a convention center with a hotel that's attached to the convention center, with a fair number of rooms, depending on the city," he said.
Larger cities such as Chicago and Dallas, for example, would want more than one thousand rooms attached to their convention space, according to Graham. Erie County is already studying the existing Buffalo Niagara Convention Center and considering options but guests at the summit believe it's outdated and puts Buffalo at a disadvantage.
Graham said Buffalo's biggest competitors for gatherings are mid-sized mid-American cities. And most have already gotten a head start on new convention spaces.
"Right now, Louisville is completing a brand new convention center next year. They've been working on it for three years," he said. "Nashville completed a brand new center two years ago, along with the hotels to go with it. Columbus (Ohio) has just completed a total renovation of their center. Indianapolis did it about five years ago."
Kaler acknowledged the calls for a new convention space, telling WBFO while there are local leaders who think it's time for an upgrade, it's more significant when outside experts are offering a similar opinion.
But he was also pleased by the positive feedback about Buffalo's redevelopment, which helps break the city's stereotype and past reputation as a cold, grey, desolate downtown with little to do.
"I think we do that. Every opportunity we can, we bring in influencers who are excited about learning about Buffalo because they've been reading about Buffalo in so many of the trade publications. Because of the renaissance we've been having we're getting several travel writers who are interested in telling that message and coming and finding out firsthand."