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Tourism takes biggest economic hit in Year 1 of pandemic

Visit Buffalo Niagara

The economic toll of the pandemic shows everywhere, but more so in the hospitality industry, with the lists of laid-off workers, closed hotels and losses of tax revenue locally and across the state.

It’s a sign of hope ahead that, when interviewed Tuesday, Visit Buffalo Niagara President and CEO Patrick Kaler was actually in his office for the first time in a year. When the economic storm hit and the Canadian border was closed, everyone was sent home to work and both visitors bureaus were closed.

He said "economic storm" is a fair description.

However, there actually is some good news in that area, since Washington, DC developer Douglas Jemal moved in to take over the Hyatt Regency Hotel which shut down, has taken over the Statler in the wake of restaurateur Mark Croce's death and is working to take over Hotel Henry, hammered by the pandemic and seen by Kaler as a real star property in the industry.

Credit Michael Mroziak / WBFO News
Patrick Kaler is President 7 CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara.

Kaler said even those frontline workers still working had a bad year.

"Wait staff, bartenders, frontline workers at hotels and they’re all working on reduced schedules. I know a general manager at one of our properties that is actually having to work the front desk of his hotel. I know hotel GMs that are out of their offices as well, changing beds," he said.

While it looks as if tourism is perking up, Kaler said the real impact will be next year. That is why tourists within driving distance are the targets this year.

"We’re actually working with our counterparts in Pennsylvania in the Laurel Highlands to come up with a Frank Lloyd Wright package that combines our sites -- Graycliff, the Martin House, along with Fallingwaters -- and doing a drive itinerary, back and forth, for both our visitors to go to their location and their visitors to come to Buffalo," Kaler said.

Conventioneers, meeting groups and event planners are starting up again -- really for next year -- but Kaler would like them to come from farther away. That brought up the unresolved issue of a new convention center.   

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"Buffalo was not fulfilling its overall meetings and conventions potential with all of the hotels around the center that we have in our downtown location, all of the attractions, the waterfront, all of the great experiences that convention planners are looking for in a destination," he said.

No matter what the decision is on a convention center, economic realities are that a decision is farther away than it was a year ago, as the hospitality industry hopes to start rebuilding and hiring.

"Because of the pandemic, we have been able to push many of the pieces of business that didn’t take place in 2020 to later this year in ’21, but 2022 is looking to be a banner year for meetings and conventions in Buffalo," Kaler said. "We have very few available days and weeks left for 2022."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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