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Visit Buffalo Niagara pivots in pandemic to better suit travelers, industry, local business

Thu, Feb 25th 2021 11:35 am

Guest Editorial by Patrick J. Kaler
Visit Buffalo Niagara President and CEO

To our valued tourism partners,

It was a year we would rather forget. For the hospitality industry, it was a year of turmoil, frustration and fear as an unprecedented public health crisis turned our lives upside down. Seemingly overnight, every assumption, every standard, every rule of thumb that guided our strategic thinking and sales and marketing activities was rendered moot – leaving destination marketing organizations and our industry partners looking for answers in a world overrun by new and disorienting questions.

At Visit Buffalo Niagara, we were forced to ask ourselves what role we should play in a time when travel was inadvisable, a time when meetings and sports events were being canceled or postponed by the score. What was our mission in a time of crisis and how could we help our community under these circumstances? These are the kinds of questions that an organization would typically consider as part of an exercise in crisis management and emergency preparedness. In 2020, the crisis was unimaginably real and urgent – threatening the livelihoods of thousands of our colleagues, partners and friends.

Visit Buffalo Niagara wasn’t immune from the consequences of this catastrophe. In April, we were forced to let go more than half of our staff – trusted and productive employees who had made significant contributions to our organization. It was a painful process, particularly for those who lost their jobs, but the circumstances demanded that VBN downsize in response to the tremendous downturn in leisure, business, and meetings-related travel.

For those of us who remained, “pivot” became the word of the day – every day. The first order of business was assuring potential visitors that Buffalo was taking every step to ensure their health and well-being. We launched the “Buffalo Cares: Stay Safe Pledge” program to demonstrate our industry’s commitment to the protocols and guidelines established by the Center for Disease Control, state of New York, and Erie County. Hundreds of participating businesses pledged to adhere to these stringent guidelines and expend every effort to keep their staff and customers safe.

Next, the Customer Confidence Program was launched by the sales team. Employing many of the same protocols and polices embedded in the Buffalo Cares Pledge, the Customer Confidence Program was designed to assure meeting planners that it was safe to book a convention or conference in Buffalo. A cornerstone of the program was the announcement that the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center had achieved Global Bio-risk Council Star Accreditation, the gold standard for prepared facilities.

We were determined to make a contribution to helping the locally owned businesses that form the fabric of our community and are at the heart of the visitor experience in Buffalo. We initiated and managed the “Dining at a Distance” database that served as a resource for identifying open restaurants, hours of operation and how their take-out operations worked. We also facilitated the local implementation of a Virtual Tip Jar designed to mitigate the loss of income for restaurant industry workers, launched the production of a video series highlighting small business and promoted the Shop716 and Dine716 social media challenges. And we worked to ensure Buffalo would be ready to safely welcome back visitors by identifying socially distant diversions, virtual experiences, self-guided walking tours and outdoor recreation activities that were consistent with public health guidelines.

Visit Buffalo Niagara continued to pivot when Erie County asked us to help with a public awareness campaign designed to support local small businesses. In response, the marketing team launched the “Come back to our Comeback” campaign – a multifaceted initiative that was deployed on virtually every medium available to advertisers in Western New York. The tagline, “Our comeback isn’t over, it’s just waiting for you to come back” embodied the community spirit that Buffalonians have always demonstrated when the going gets tough. The campaign met with an enthusiastic response and surveys on social media showed a high degree of activity at local businesses while the campaign was running.

While the world was rocked by COVID-19 for much of 2020, our country was also struggling with issues related to race, social justice and human rights inspired by the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. With these events unfolding, Visit Buffalo Niagara felt a moral obligation to issue a statement in support of Black Americans who have been victims of violence and made to feel marginalized and fearful. We wanted to make clear that all visitors – regardless of the color of their skin, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation – are welcome to our community.

As I said at the start of this letter, our industry faced daunting and debilitating hardships in 2020. But it was also a time of creativity and ingenuity. Necessity, as it’s been said, is the mother of invention. That maxim was put to the test in 2020 and the people of Buffalo responded. Even as some businesses closed, others opened. Restaurants reinvented themselves overnight. Arts organizations rose to the challenge and found new ways to bring performers and audiences together. Our museums and attractions found socially distanced solutions to hosting visitors. We all lent a helping hand wherever it was needed. And we learned that this generation has the kind of resilience, patience and perseverance that saw previous generations through crises of their own.

As the signs around town say, “Together, we will see it through.” We have and we will.

Sincerely and with warm regards,
Patrick J. Kaler

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