Marketing NNY’s best-kept secrets

TI tourism director Gary S. DeYoung confident region will continue to attract

With all its natural splendor, many people say the north country is a best-kept secret. Since 1997, Wisconsin native Gary S. DeYoung has worked to share some of the secrets that attract thousands each year to the region’s fresh waterways and unspoiled assets. We sat down with Mr. DeYoung to talk about a part of NNY’s economy that, despite a slow-paced national economic recovery, is a bright spot.

NNYB: You’ve said that Canadians are temporary tax payers that lower the tax burden for residents. With the Canadian dollar close to par, how will we continue to benefit from Canadians spending money in our region?

DEYOUNG: Last year we had over a million Canadians returning to the U.S. using the Thousand Islands Bridge. Most of them were staying overnight. There are a couple of benefits. The tax structure encourages Canadians to stay overnight and take more back. That helps our hospitality businesses in Watertown and all the way down 81 to Syracuse and the Finger Lakes. We want them to stay for a nice meal, do some recreation and take in some entertainment. I’m starting to see that happen with conversations we have at the welcome center. People just asking for directions to the mall last year are now saying ‘Where can I take a bike ride?’

NNYB: What precautions must our region have in place to retain or replace those revenues that could be lost if the dollar swings the other way and the American dollar is less favorable?

DEYOUNG: That happened in the 1980s, you can look back at the records and see that Alex Bay lost about 30 percent of their hotel occupancy in the span of a couple of years when the Canadian dollar suddenly dropped. In the end, it’s about product and I represent both sides of the border, so we are saying this to Canadians now. You have to give people good reason to come over and reasons above that it’s cheap. It’s getting people to find entertainment and recreation here. It’s a challenge we are always going to have in terms of cross-border shoppers. People are price sensitive. They are going to go where the best deal is.

NNYB: So your agency represents both sides of the border, both U.S. and Canadian tourism?

DEYOUNG: Our agency is unique in that it is a partnership between the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority and Jefferson County. On the U.S. side, we are the official tourism agency for Jefferson County. One third of my salary is paid by the Canadian Federal Bridge Corp.  The bridge agencies have a vested interest in getting people to go back and forth across the bridge. Since the 1950s the realization was that the further we get away from here, the less the border matters to people. For someone from Pennsylvania or Ohio to take a vacation here, it makes sense to promote both Fort Henry and Boldt Castle, Sackets Harbor and Gananoque.

NNYB: What challenges are you facing in the post-9/11 tourism industry?

DEYOUNG: It’s tough trying to promote that seamless border and easy cross-border experience. A lot of easing that is communication. A lot of it is trying to let people know what to expect, how long the wait is going to be, what kind of information they need to present when crossing the border, etc. That level of confusion is most frustrating.

NNYB: What can be done about marketing our region as a four-season destination, not just a summer and fall destination?

DEYOUNG: Marketing follows product. You have to have a product to market. Our challenge in Jefferson County and north of the border is that we need winter tourism on the recreation side. We need the trails. The county has been working on that for quite a few years now, getting access to trails like we see in Lewis and Oneida counties. We just don’t have it. We can invite people but unless we can give them something to do, it doesn’t make a lot of economic sense.

NNYB: With the mild and unpredictable winters in most recent years, does that impact tourism at all?

DEYOUNG: This conversation comes up all the time and everyone says we ought to do more winter. I worked in Wisconsin for years and we had a ski hill and the county had snowmobile trails and everything. That experience taught me that winter weather is less reliable than summer weather. Even on the most dismal day of the summer you can take a boat on the water and float it. The wrong day in January and you might not be able to go anyplace on your snowmobile. The winter makes the investment tough. Years ago we had a lot of outdoor water parks, in the 1980s. They discovered quickly that they couldn’t pay the bills if it was a cold, rainy summer. The same thing applies for winter.

NNYB: We have seen a surge in grassroots efforts to draw people to places like Clayton with Sailing Seaway Clayton, and Sackets with the Made in NNY Festival. How do efforts like that help with the bigger picture?

DEYOUNG: Events are things people really look forward to. We have a lot of traditional events in the region, with the French Festival, Pirate Days and the antique boat show. A lot of these are annual reasons people come to the region, which is great. It gets a new set of customers in that aren’t your typical people who come every weekend to fish or have a cottage here. I’m hoping as we continue to promote events we will become more strategic about it and that we will say we could use events to bring people in the spring, because we have a tough time getting May open or would we like to target this kind of customer that spends more money? I think more of that is happening. Talking to promoters, they’re thinking about making money putting on an event, but how it will help with the community and serving what the community wants to do.

[Editor’s note: This is a truncated version of this story. For the full version, please see NNY Business in print or subscribe.]

 Interview by Ken Eysaman. Edited for length and clarity.