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Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau Comes Under
Attack from  New Erie County Executive Chris Collins
By Matthew Spina, The Buffalo News, N.Y.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Mar. 20, 2008 - Erie County Executive Chris Collins is lining up a hot seat for Richard Geiger, the $160,000-a-year president of the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau who leads the region's effort to draw tourists and conventions.

"I'm just not a person who likes excuses," Collins said this week, to express his displeasure with Geiger and the bureau, and to explain why he demands a bigger say in whether Geiger stays or goes.

"Do the best you can with what you have," Collins continued. "I don't want to hear complaining. I don't want to hear excuses. I don't want to hear whining. Here's the reality: No one has enough money. . . . And the [C onvention and Visitors Bureau] has spent a lot of time whining and complaining that they don't have enough money."

Geiger was hired from Orlando, Fla., in 1995 and is paid $160,050 with potential bonuses of $28,350, according to records the bureau has provided to the County Legislature. He says his bureau has done an excellent job because, among other things, hotel occupancy rates rose last year from the previous year and hotel revenue grew by 12 percent.

"But as you know, we have a new county executive in town," Geiger added, "and if he wants to look closer at our numbers and how we are doing, we are open to doing that."

The new county executive wants to do more than look at numbers. He wants to become "personally engaged" in the bureau's operations and, using the power of the purse, hold Geiger to the same standards he expects from a county commissioner or a department head.

The Legislature granted the bureau $4.2 million to run the convention center and promote tourism this year, but the money will not become available until the county executive and the bureau sign the annual contract that outlines their expectations. So Collins insists this year's contract contain these provisions:

--The county executive appoints six members, up from three, of the 22-member board. (One of his members will be Robert Victoria, Seneca Gaming's vice president for marketing.)

--The bureau no longer can claim a right to the "bed tax" revenue generated at hotels and motels. Collins says that money belongs in the government's general fund, and decisions about county aid will not be linked to the rise or fall of bed tax income.

--The bureau will draft a five-year strategic plan for running the convention center and drawing conventions and tourists to the region's attractions.

--Six of the 22 board members will constitute a special panel to judge Geiger's performance and decide whether to select a new leader. Collins wants three of his appointees on that six-member panel. Four of its members would be able to fire him.

That, according to Collins, is the most crucial change. "I'm not saying Geiger's got to go," Collins said. "I'm saying he has to prove his worth to these six people. And if he does, he can keep his job."

That's not sitting well with the bureau's board. Keith M. Belanger, the board's chairman and a senior vice president at M&T Bank, said the board will not give Collins the right to rip out its president and chief executive officer. The bureau, meanwhile, has been living off a line of credit that will run out at the end of the month.

"The contract that was put in front of us is a contract we cannot live with because it usurps our independence," Belanger said. "It does not recognize a board that is diverse and does not recognize that it is a board that during the last three years, following the budget crisis, has been able to deliver some pretty good results.

"You don't have to go any further than looking at hotel revenue in 2007," he said. "It's up 12 percent. There's a lot of industries that would look at 12 percent and say that's pretty good performance."

When campaigning for office, Collins had supported dedicating all bed tax revenue to the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Dedication? Forget that. We haven't even gotten any money yet," said David Hart of Hart Hotels, who also sits on the board. "That doesn't sound like a business approach to me. That's brinkmanship and a power play. I am extremely upset at where we are at right now."

Geiger presented statistics showing that, last year, his five-member sales staff booked more future room nights, almost 119,000, than similarly sized staffs in Rochester; Syracuse; Omaha, Neb.; Providence, R.I.; and Spokane, Wash. Still, the managers of some of the region's cultural attractions see the bureau as more concerned with drawing conventions than tourists to Buffalo-area attractions, such as the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Darwin Martin House.

"I think it's an area where they could use some advice and support," Celeste M. Lawson, executive director of the Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County, said when asked to assess the bureau's efforts to draw visitors to historic and cultural sites. "But I think it's an area where the entire community could use some advice and support. We all need to figure out how we can manage this more effectively."

The bureau's failures, Collins says, include its lack of a brand, or slogan, to market the region. He has an idea -- "Buffalo, the Warmest City in America" -- which Collins thinks captures attention by turning Buffalo's snowbound image on its head. He, however, is not wed to that. He offers it merely to show that the bureau has no slogan, no brand, for Buffalo.

"Branding is a lot more than creating a logo or a slogan," Geiger responded. "Branding is a process that you have to go through, organizationally and community-wide, to get what is a positioning statement. It has to be believable and based on qualitative and quantitative research."

Both he and Belanger said a branding campaign begun back in 2004 was sidetracked when the the county budget crisis hit. The bureau, meanwhile, has marketed the region's art, architecture, culture and heritage under the slogan "American Masters/ American Treasures," Geiger said.

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