|By Ian Cropp, The Buffalo News, N.Y.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
June 28, 2004 - David Hart knows how important it is to promote a business and satisfy customers.
The president and CEO of Buffalo-headquartered Hart Hotels has helped build a successful business that spans the country with 12 hotels and 1,700 rooms.
Now he's facing a new challenge as chairman of the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau, the agency responsible for marketing and promoting tourism, hospitality, and leisure in the region.
Richard Geiger, president and CEO of the CVB, believes Hart's business acumen makes him perfect for the position.
"Not only does he have a vested interest in the community, but he has properties in other states," Geiger said. "His macro perspective speaks well and is a great advantage."
Starting the hotel business in Buffalo was a strategic and personal decision made by Hart's father, and keeping it here was the son's logical decision.
"When my father bought the business, the plan was to bring all of the family back to the region," Hart said.
Both Hart and his father worked for the Peabody Hotel Group, and when his father purchased a chain of Holiday Inn hotels in 1985, David moved from White Plains back to the Buffalo area. Hart's three sisters and two brothers-in-law also work for the company.
The company now has over 800 employees, 500 of whom work for the Buffalo-area hotels or in the corporate offices at 617 Dingens St.
Customer satisfaction is key, Hart said.
"No matter how much the client is paying, we want to make them feel like they are getting what they paid for -- it's a value perception," he said. "We want them to leave saying that if they came back, they would choose our hotel.
Some Hart Hotels are Holiday Inn or Intercontinental franchises, while several out of state properties are independent. In 2003, Hart Hotels generated revenues of over $40 million, making it the 65th largest hotel management company in the United States.
Hart Hotels plays "to all market segments -- airport, downtown, suburbs, resort, resort beach, extended stay, and boutique," said Hart. "We have 12 hotels, all different, which puts presure on our sales and marketing team."
As regional markets may experience highs and lows, diversifying geographically is important, Hart said. Seven properties are in New York state, with five in the Buffalo area, one in Auburn, and one in Ithaca. The others are in Park City, Utah; South Burlington, Vt.; Portland, Maine, and Siesta Key, Fla.
As for the Buffalo Niagara region, Hart says tourism here is lagging, even though recovering from the effects of 9/11.
He uses the term "rev-par" as a benchmark -- the average room rate multiplied by the occupancy rate.
"Right now we are 10 percent below the rev-par national average," Hart said. "This is a problem."
"What I want to know is, why can't we just be the average? I don't shoot for average in my business or in my life, but I would sure take it when it comes to getting the region up to rev-par for the United States."
Citing statistics from Smith Travel Research Data, Hart says that room sales were close to $140 million in Erie County in 2003, down from over $150 million a few years ago.
One of the changes Hart hopes to institute is sharper marketing, incorporating more of a regional focus that would keep tourists in the area for an extended period of time.
"We should market and promote all of the attractions we have to offer in the region," Hart said. "Each section of the region only has a small part of what the tourists will be looking for. If they plan out a two-, three-, or four-day trip, they can anchor in one area and see everything."
Others, such as Ruth Benjamin, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, agree that people need to stay for an extended period.
"At our hotel, the average stay for a guest is 1.5 nights," Benjamin said. "We need to get and keep (visitors) in town for longer."
In order to promote the region, the CVB runs a heavy advertising campaign. A 5 percent room tax provides the majority of the CVB's funding (55 percent of the tax goes to the CVB, the rest pays for renovations at the convention center and construction of the HSBC Arena). Last year the CVB had an advertising budget of $3 million, which according to Hart "may sound like a lot, but it goes in a hurry."
"We are in competition with other communities that have more money to spend," he said.
Some of the direct tourism competition for Buffalo comes from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, Rochester, and Milwaukee.
Both Hart and Geiger stress utilizing the region's assets such as the convention center and continuing to promote amateur sports events. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of visits recruited by the CVB come from amateur sports events, and the convention center will bring over 30,000 hotel room nights this year, according to Geiger.
"We have a good reputation, good facilities, and have done well (in the amateur sports market)," Geiger said. "We want to expand the market and do more of that, and with renovations to the convention center, we want to deliver more."
Low-fare airlines have also made Buffalo more attractive, Hart said. In affordability, Buffalo's air fares "have moved up in rankings from the bottom, to mid-level, to bargain," he said.
Despite that, over 80 percent of area visitors come by automobile.
Hart does not see a lack of regional attractions as a problem, but more their promotion.
"We have the capacity," Hart said. "But we need to do a better job on visitor readiness and make sure the venues ... do their best job to ensure a positive visit. The worst thing is to spend money to promote something that will give tourists a bad visit. Little things like proper signage and clean and lit streets make a difference."
Some problems remain out of the CVB's control, including long waits at the border. What used to be a perk of traveling through the area has now become a hinderence, said Geiger.
"We have tried to promote the area as 'Get two countries for the price of one' which came from the ease of passing back and forth," he said. "Now there are challenges."
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