June 2015: Guest Essay

Developing local tourism products

Guest writer Gary DeYoung

Guest writer Gary DeYoung

As a destination marketing organizations, the task Thousand Islands International Tourism Council is to market the region as a visitor destination. The postcard scenery of the Thousand Islands, its historic character, its rural charm, its recreational opportunities are all attributes have long been used to draw visitors who spend money. In the end, money is what tourism about. It is not about simply drawing visitors, it is about drawing the money they spend while visiting. How do you monetize the St. Lawrence River? How do you cash in on history? How does fishing on Lake Ontario translate into local jobs?

That is where what tourism professionals call “product” comes into the conversation. To have tourism play a worthwhile role in the local economy, you need salable product. That is how tourism attraction translates into economic impact.

One of the challenges of any DMO is that it has little control over the local tourism product. It is a topic that draws much discussion at tourism conferences. Visitors want quality lodging, great dining, engaging attractions and unique shopping options. No matter how clever, marketing cannot overcome weaknesses in a destination’s product.

Destinations with great attractions can drive away business because visitor services such as lodging and dining are lacking. Worse, destinations may successfully draw crowds, but fail to fully profit from them. Today, the process of destination development has become recognized as planning both marketing initiatives traditionally conducted by DMOs and instituting an investment strategy that keeps a destination’s product fresh and competitive.

New York has some significant destination investments on the drawing board. They are a mix of visitor attractions and visitor services. A few examples: Staten Island is working on a giant wheel similar to those found in destinations like Las Vegas or London. With New York’s expansion of gambling, the Catskills and Finger Lakes have a billion dollars in casino construction in the works. The $150 million Wonder Fall Resort in Niagara was introduced as a key tourism development in the Buffalo Billion plan.

All those projects have some sort of economic development backing from the state. But, figuring out how to attract and incentivize tourism development in New York is a work in progress. Unlike manufacturing or agriculture, there is no state or regional staff assigned to the specific task of increasing tourism investment. The state’s tourism department and its DMOs are organized to market products, but don’t have the toolsets needed to attract product investment. Industrial developers, work to fit tourism into their mix, but don’t usually have specialized knowledge of the tourism industry. Still, many economic developers see tourism as a key component in moving the economy forward.

As the issue has been looked at regionally, it has become clear that tourism development in Northern New York must be approached as a truly incremental process. Unlike urban areas, tourism development in the North Country is not likely to hinge on giant investments. The nature of sustainable, rural tourism development seldom involves projects north of $100 million. The process is more about respecting traditions, environment and culture, while making villages and small cities attractive places to visit and live. Introducing fresh “product” that monetizes tourism here is often a nitty-gritty process of small, local investors opening or upgrading restaurants, shops, inns and recreation services. If successful, this process can not only bolster tourism, but transform North Country communities into attractive places to live and invest in other enterprises.

Looking at the last decade, there is evidence of success. Since 2006, over 800 new rooms have been constructed in Jefferson County. Watertown, Fort Drum, Carthage, Clayton, Sackets Harbor and Cape Vincent have all welcomed new lodging facilities. Many of those rooms are in franchise properties, others are small lodging. Notably, the lodging investors are mostly Upstate family enterprises, be they a hotel group from Buffalo or Rochester or a local family expanding their own holdings.

In the past 15 years, a cadre of wineries, distilleries and brew pubs have come on to the scene serving tourists and locals alike. Once again, these are locally grown enterprises.

Local attractions such as Boldt Castle and the Antique Boat Museum have made large investments in their facilities utilizing their own earned income or private fund raising. Tourism marketing for the Thousand Islands is benefiting from being able to promote improved product, mostly created with local initiative.

The clues to solving that tourism investment product puzzle are evident. Local and regional investors have proven they are willing, even excited, to be part of functioning communities and tourism destinations. A toolkit is needed to empower these investors. The list of top needs to inspire their investment is similar whenever a community or regional group asks the question. Like most other sectors, it includes access to utilities, transportation and broadband as well as streamlining government permitting and oversight. Tourism investors are also looking for assistance similar to other industries in accessing financing.

The tourism industry’s specific needs include building more capacity to attract visitors outside the summer season, perhaps including entertainment venues, indoor recreation options, and expanded winter sports facilities.

Tourism has been an important component of the winning North Country Regional Economic Development Council plans in recent years. As it competes for $500 million in revitalization funds, the region will likely again put forward a strategy to build tourism product investment that results in realizing a vision for sustainable tourism. It will need to demonstrate that the process may not necessarily result in a giant Ferris wheel, shiny casino or towering hotel complex, but can result in attractive downtowns, waterfronts, and country sides that draw both visitors and new businesses. And, it can result in even more great, income-producing product for the region’s DMOs to market.

Gary S. DeYoung is director of tourism for the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council. Contact him at gary@visit1000islands.com, 482-2520 or 1 (800) 847-5263.