Tourism study highlights convention center's shortcomings

Tourism study highlights convention center's shortcomings

A new report gives Buffalo and Erie County high marks as a tourism destination, but underscores the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center’s shortcomings in drawing events and visitors.

The results put more attention on the future of the Franklin Street facility – whether it should be renovated and expanded, or replaced in a new location. That is the subject of a separate study conducted by the county.

Patrick J. Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara, said the tourism report’s findings reinforced the importance of a solution for the convention center.

“It was reassuring that we’re moving in the right direction with the convention center study, and whatever that might bring,” he said. “That is definitely recognized as something that needs attention.”

Visit Buffalo Niagara commissioned Destination Next’s report on the county’s tourism sector. Overall, Destination Next rated the county strong in both its destinations and its community support. But the convention center stood out for its weak marks.

The facility’s size and layout are barriers to attracting more events there, Kaler said. “Thank God [convention center general manager] Paul [Murphy] and his staff get high marks on food and customer service. But we’re not able to do multiple events in the current configuration of the convention center. That’s very limiting.”

Patrick J. Kaler of Visit Buffalo Niagara (provided photo)

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The convention center also misses out on opportunities related to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. “The current convention center is not going to be appealing to bringing in high-end physicians conferences,” Kaler said.

Convention centers play a vital role in drawing visitors outside of the peak travel season, said Paul Ouimet, managing director of Destination Next.

“One of the major benefits of a convention center is that is does generate year-round demand, so it can have a very significant, sustained economic impact throughout the year.”

And it’s not just conventions Buffalo is losing out on, Kaler said. “Right now, we can’t have volleyball tournaments in the convention center because the ceiling is four inches too low. Otherwise we would be able to have those types of sporting events in the convention center.”

But upgrading Buffalo’s convention center won’t be cheap, whether it’s through an expansion or an entirely new facility. Albany spent $78 million on its new convention center. The price tag on an expansion of the Rochester convention center topped $100 million.

The Destination Next report rated a number of variables, based on the “perceived performance” of each, on a scale of 1 to 5. Among 10 variables, convention and meeting facilities scored the lowest, with a 2.73. That was below the region’s overall “destination strength” score of 3.60. Ouimet said any score below 3 on the survey is considered low.

The report cited tourism funding, public transportation and workforce development as other issues that need greater attention. Meanwhile, the county scored well in categories such as attractions and entertainment, and sports and recreation facilities.

“You are starting here from a strong base,” Ouimet said. “You’re in a much better position than many other destinations currently find themselves.”

The report collected the views of local community leaders, customers, Visit Buffalo Niagara staff and its board of directors, and other bureau partners and stakeholders. The survey was conducted over a six-week period in March and April.