Ed Healy

Episode 50: Showcase Your Unique Assets, with Ed Healy

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In this episode, you will learn about why differentiation is the name of the game and why you need to provide unique, niched experiences to attract visitors to your destination from Ed Healy.

Ed Healy is Vice President of Marketing for Visit Buffalo Niagara where he is responsible for VBN’s destination marketing strategy. His responsibilities include overseeing all sales and marketing communications, including the production of an annual visitors guide, websites, e-newsletters, social media, videos, podcasts and consumer advertising, as well as media and public relations.

During his tenure at VBN, Buffalo has been named one of the National Trusts Dozen Distinctive Destinations, the No. 1 Mid-Size Arts Destination in the United States by American Style Magazine, one of 44 Places to Go by The New York Times and, most recently, one of CNN’s 16 Intriguing Things to See and Do in the U.S. in 2016.

He was the executive producer of Buffalo: America’s Best Designed City and has produced and scripted numerous promotional videos that have been viewed more than one million times on YouTube. He serves on the board of Gardens Buffalo Niagara and the marketing committee of the Darwin Martin House.

He was named the David I. Levy Communicator of the Year in 2016 by the Advertising Club of Buffalo.

Healy began his career at the National Hockey League as an editorial assistant and eventually served as editor of Goal Magazine, the NHL’s official publication. He then joined the Gannett Newspapers in White Plains, New York where he served as a staff writer for the paper’s Sunday magazine and the Arts and Entertainment editor for its southern Connecticut edition. After moving to Buffalo in the early 90s, he joined the Marketing Department of Blue Cross & Blue Shield where he served in a variety of capacities before joining Visit Buffalo Niagara in 2001.

He is an avid photographer whose work has been exhibited at galleries ranging from Buffalo’s Studio Hart to Rochester’s Visual Studies Workshop to Soho Photo in Manhattan. He had his first solo show at CEPA Gallery in 2005. He is a proud graduate of the English Department at the University at Buffalo and the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

Healy grew up in West Seneca and now lives in North Buffalo with his wife, Karen. He has two adult children, Meg and Dan.

More on Ed’s Background

Thank you so much for joining me, Ed.

My pleasure, Nicole.

I’m really looking forward to talking to and learning from you today. You have such an extensive background in not only tourism but also your editorial background and your knowledge of New York State is really exceptional. Before we get started, I know the bio I shared is only a small glimpse of who you are, so could you share a little bit more about your story and your path?

I often say to people that the primary reason I love my job so much is that it brings to bear so many of the experiences and the training I had earlier in my career. I was taught video production, broadcast journalism, print journalism as well in graduate school at Syracuse University at the Newhouse School. Then, of course, I moved into print journalism immediately after graduating from Newhouse and worked in a variety of capacities in print as a writer and editor, and I eventually moved into public relations and marketing communications with Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

When I had the opportunity to come to Visit Buffalo Niagara and move into destination marketing, it really just seemed almost like a dream come true. I mean, on the one hand, I would be able to represent a city that I love deeply and feel very passionate about, but then I could also bring those skills in video production, in writing, editing, photography, it’s really to bear on this challenge of promoting Buffalo as a visitor destination. It’s really been a very rewarding and fulfilling experience, and really the capstone to my career. I’m just thrilled to be able to do what I do. Now if you had told me 30 years ago that I’d wind up working in destination marketing, I would have just been astonished, because frankly, I didn’t even know it existed as a career.

It’s something that I really just kind of serendipitously fell into in mid-career, but as I said it’s been extremely rewarding because my time here has coincided with Buffalo’s resurgence. As a city, we’re making a tremendous investment and rebuilding and re-imagining our city. There’s tremendous restoration of our historic architecture going on, repurposing of buildings, old department stores becoming apartment buildings, and places where there were plants and warehouses becoming things like breweries and performance spaces. It’s really been an exciting ride around here in the last 16 years or so. It’s a kind of, to me, a culmination of so many things that I’ve done, but also the rebirth of the city that I love sort of coming together. It’s just been a terrific opportunity and a great time in my career for me.

I think that’s really awesome. You know this is a bit of a theme in these interviews with my guests, when I talk to them about their journey and how they’ve arrived, and it usually is some sort of serendipity as you called it. This whole idea of being able to promote a place that you love so deeply and are so passionate about, I think that that’s just a reoccurring theme for most of our guests here on this podcast, but also this idea of rounding up everything that you’ve done in your career and your journey and how that fits so nicely into destination marketing. When you set off on this career, you didn’t even know it existed, as you said. I always just love to hear about how that past come about. Thank you for sharing.

It’s kind of interesting. I think in my day at Newhouse, you were either in the broadcast track or the print track, and nowadays people think more in terms of the integrated marketing communications where you are sort of learning it all. You’re prepared to move in any direction, and of course, that’s probably a reflection of the dramatic change that’s taking place primarily in print over the course of the last 20 years or so. The lack of job opportunities that once were there for another generation, but I feel in a way looking back on the path that I’ve taken to where I am today, is that sort of post-graduate I picked up these other skills, that maybe a person who is studying integrated marketing communications would have as part of their academic training today.

It all sort of coheres into an overall toolkit that I bring to bear on my job across the board, because of course, you know … and of course I had to learn new things along the way. The web was not a thing when I was in school, and learning right from the very beginning, back in the mid-90’s, when websites were introduced and then the commercial applicability of the worldwide web began to be recognized. I did those tools and those experiences and added them to my resume and to my background. I’d like to say that it’s been an incredibly challenging time to be in marketing communications but also a tremendous time of opportunity and growth. If you are open to learning, open to new experiences, and not wanting to be, sort of just rely on the old ways of doing things, boy, it’s been a great plan to do what I do and my colleagues in destination marketing do.

Yeah, and that’s so true, and I like how you called out needing that openness to learning and openness to new experiences, which does dovetail so nicely with what we’re marketing in terms of getting people to experience the destination that you’re marketing.

Using Chatbots to Communicate with Your Audience

I think there’s just a really nice dovetail there between the skillsets, the type of personality that you have to be able to pull those things together and continuously change with the times, and then to understand that and be able to market your destination in that way. I think that’s awesome.

You’re absolutely right, we’ve had to be very imaginative in how we conceive of Buffalo as a place to live, work, and visit, and be very imaginative in terms of how we market it and our messaging. We also have to challenge ourselves as professionals, in terms of being open to all of these new tools that come along. Actually, Visit Buffalo Niagara recently had launched what we believe is the first chatbot that any DMO has ever offered to the traveling public in the entire country if not the world. This is embracing new technology and being aware of what’s out there, and always trying to be on the cutting edge so that our potential visitors can access information about our destination in every possible format. Now a chatbot is really kind of, in an automated way to deploy information that people use who are on Facebook. You use Facebook Messenger to send a message to Visit Buffalo Niagara to the Unexpected Buffalo, and there’s a variety of options you can choose in terms of things to see and do, places to eat, accommodations, etc.

We’ve also recently added Natural Language Processing to the chatbot so, if you’re interested in best pizza, you can type those keywords in, and the chatbot will return the best places to have pizza in Buffalo, which we’re well-known for. That’s just the most recent example of trying to stay abreast of new technology and emerging trends and take advantage of them on behalf of our destination.

I just love that. Does the chatbot integrate with all of your channels? You mentioned Facebook Messenger.

It’s actually housed on Facebook Messenger. About a year ago, Facebook opened up its messenger platform to developers, encouraged them to think in terms of chatbot technology, and that type of thing. We’re using that. We recently actually ran our database through our existing database of customers through Facebook, and about 88% of our existing database was on Facebook. It really has become ubiquitous across demographic groups and different age groups. Most everyone, nearly 9 out 10 people, based on our database are on Facebook using messenger, and it’s only growing. This is one of the most downloaded apps in the entire world, the Messenger App. We want to be where our customers are, interacting with them where they are. They spend most of their time online, and actually, probably many hours in a day are spent on Facebook. This is just, as I said, another opportunity to communicate with them and give them another way to get information about our destination. We’re pleased that we’re able to be, apparently, the first DMO to do this in the entire country.

Wow, that’s fantastic. Did you work with the developer to create that chatbot?

Yup, the company that’s called GuideBot, based in Brooklyn. We essentially agreed to be a test pilot for them, and it’s going very well. In fact, our marketing manager recently appeared at the E-Tourism Conference in San Francisco and made a presentation along with the GuideBot founder, about the GuideBot technology and our experience with it thus far. I mean, it is brand new. One of the things that we’re having to do is educate the marketplace that this chatbot technology exists, this is how it works, and that it’s simple, easy, very intuitive. Our feeling is the chatbot technology is probably in its infancy, probably where apps were five or six years ago. We’re really anticipating that it’s something that’s become much more embraced in the coming years, and particularly in the next year, we’re expecting to see the awareness of chatbot technology grow tremendously. We’re prepared to really be among the early adopters, who really ride that wave.

That’s just really cool. What I really love about that is that you are embracing technology, but you’re leading it. You’re an emerging space and you’re willing to take a risk to work with this developer and be one of the first to try out this new technology. I just find that really exciting. It actually just brought to mind something I learned recently listening to a Schiff podcast actually. Visit London has an actual tech incubator right, co-located in the DMO’s office, and I found that very interesting because technology has such a huge impact on not only how we market travel, but how we buy travel and how we experience travel. I just thought that it was a really interesting way to think about it, so how cool.

We’re actually hearing a lot more about tourism tech as a field of growth and opportunity. I mean the venture capital community is looking at that, developers are looking at tourism as a growth industry, as we both know that it is, but I don’t think it’s been thought of as a real engine for that in the tech sector, and it appears that it’s changing. That’s not the first time I’ve heard about a tourism tech incubator, I know Portugal has one as well. These are exciting times, as I said, it’s been a time of great change where sort of the Earth is moving beneath our feet, and you have to really be very nimble to stay on your feet sometimes.


But if you are nimble, and I said earlier, kind of open to change, boy, what an exciting time to be in destination marketing.

Absolutely. That’s great.

Know Who Your Audience Is

Well, you’ve gotten us off to a really good start with this conversation, and I want to move into a couple of our questions that we like to ask on this podcast. Specifically, I want to start with creativity. You’ve already shared a really great example of creativity with the new chatbot, and even in your opening, talking about being imaginative and re-imagining the city and all of that, so I’m looking forward to this next segment and talking about creativity some more with you. In particular, I’d like to start with just thinking about how competitive the hospitality and tourism industry is, and I would like to know what you at Visit Buffalo Niagara have done to stand out from the crowd.

Obviously, differentiation is the name of the game. Finding that point of difference, the unique selling proposition, however you want to refer to it, is absolutely critical, in terms of visitation. People are very mobile these days, and they travel around the world. We’re connected via airlines, and in Buffalo, that’s been a real driver of growth here. JetBlue is coming to Buffalo, Southwest Airlines is coming to Buffalo, and we have that connectivity where people can just hop on a plane anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. We’re not just competing with nearby destinations like Queensland or Pittsburgh, Rochester, Toronto, but we’re competing with Amsterdam and Glasgow, and Dublin and places literally in Asia and South America.

Credit: Joe Cascio

[bctt tweet=”“Differentiation is the name of the game in terms of visitation.” – @ebuffNY #WhyCollaborate #podcast”]

We have to really offer a compelling value proposition and let people know like, “If you come to Buffalo there are things that you can’t experience anywhere else in the world. These are special, they’re exciting, in some cases, it’s truly unique.” That’s the name of the game and we’re always thinking about in those terms, “What’s weird? What’s out of the ordinary? What’s off the beaten path? What’s something that you can’t find elsewhere?” We recently had a conference and the travel editor of the San Francisco Chronicle said, “If you’re pitching me, keep in mind that, yeah, it’s great that your city has got craft beer, murals, and food trucks, but you know what? Everybody’s got those these days. What do you have that the other guys don’t have?”

Whether it’s pitching the media or crafting a campaign for our consumers or reaching out to meeting planners to convince them to take a convention or conference to Buffalo, even if people are rights holders for big sporting events, “It’s not just that you have appropriately sized arena, but what else will the people who come to our events at your arena, what will they do afterwards that will add to that experience, that will enhance their time in your community?”

One of them, we’re very fortunate in Buffalo that we’re not a homogenous place. We live in an age of where many, many cities look very much like the next city down the interstate. Now that we live in the age of chain restaurants and chain stores and the era of mom and pop stores, and independently owned businesses, that is certainly waning, but in Buffalo, that’s not the case.

We’ve managed to, and this may be a sort of unanticipated consequence of not having been the most economically prosperous place in the last 34 years, but in an age of cultural tourism and heritage tourism, we now find ourselves well-positioned to compete in that marketplace because cultural tourists and heritage tourists, that’s what they’re looking for. They’re looking for authentic experiences. They’re looking for things that don’t look like the place where they live. They want to spend a weekend or just happen to escape from the routine, and we get that from tremendous numbers of people, particularly people who come here from the Sunbelt, who live in places that were essentially built since World War II. Buffalo has this great late 19th Century feel to it, all these big old wood frame houses, Colonials and Italianate houses, Queen Anne houses, the Victorian era, generally speaking, and tree-lined streets. Just the fabric of this place looks and feels so much different than much of America looks these days.

Correspondingly, there are the commercial strips in Buffalo. These are independently owned businesses, mom and pop businesses, that have been here, in many cases, for generations. The corner taverns are very truly unique. Each one is different. There’s a real sort of sense of Americano, a feeling of an authentic American experience here. In terms of differentiation, what was once seen as a liability because previous generations wanted to sort of knock down old buildings to take things over and make everything look shiny, modern, and new — that era has passed.

Now people are looking back beyond that and want almost had a touchstone to their grandparents, to their great-grandparents eras, and Buffalo has that. We’ve been restoring it. We’ve been interpreting it. We’ve been making it ready for company over the last 10 years or so, and now we’re really finding that there is a great appetite for those types of experiences out there. Now, it’s not for everybody. This is for people who have a certain type of sensibility. Obviously, there are lots of people who would be thrilled to go to all these places like Disney and SeaWorld. They’re successful and hugely successful for a reason. But there are niche experiences, whether it’s in terms of experiencing great American architecture or presidential history Teddy Roosevelt took the oath of office in Buffalo, and that’s one of the few times in the history of our country that a president took the oath of office outside the Capitol. We have the inaugural site at Wilcox Mansion, where Roosevelt took that oath, and it’s been restored and interpreted, it’s a National Historic Site.

Now things like that, there is only one of those. If you come to Buffalo and you’re interested in Frank Lloyd Wright, if you’re interested in presidential history, if you’re interested in the Arts & Craft Movement, things that — and like I said, they’re not for everybody — but for people who are interested in those things and are very passionate about them, they’re willing to travel great distances to experience it themselves and to immerse themselves in those experience. They tend to spend a lot of time in our destination. That formula is really working for us, and in a way that’s our differentiator, the community itself, and where we find ourselves in 2017 is what distinguishes us. Then, of course, the onus is on us as the DMO to tell that story in a very persuasive and compelling way.

All right, I think you just provided so much great insight. Just to summarize a little bit, I think what’s most and one of the biggest takeaways from that is knowing who your audience is. You talked about there is an audience for Disney World, of course, and for a SeaWorld, and for all kind of other attractions, but you have this laser-focused on, “What does Buffalo have to offer, and what audiences would be interested in that?” Then once you know that, then it’s putting that story together and communicating with them, and getting them to come out and experience it. Is that right?

Absolutely. You really have to know who you are as a destination, and what makes your destination tick. Don’t try to be something you’re not, not try to be all things to all people. Do what you do, embrace who you are, and do it well. I’ve had people say to me, “Well, those are niche things, and you need something that really has broad consumer deal,” and I would argue that these niche things, as I said, the people who are interested in them tend to be very, very engaged, very passionate. In the aggregate, all these things add up, whether it is presidential history, it’s Americano, it’s the Arts & Crafts Movement, it’s Frank Lloyd Wright, it’s outdoor recreation. One of the things that we pitched to travel writers very aggressively is the presence of grain elevators in Buffalo.

Credit: Brand USA

[bctt tweet=”“Know who you are as a destination & what makes you tick.” – @ebuffNY #WhyCollaborate #podcast”]

Now on the surface, grain elevators might seem like, “Well, why would you do that? What is interesting? Who’s going to be interested in that?” What’s happened in Buffalo is that many of our grain elevators have been turned into recreation complexes. You can come to Buffalo and do rock climbing on the side of a grain elevator. You can do zip lining between grain elevators. You can climb the top of a grain elevator on an architectural and history tour. You can go kayaking through what we call Elevator Alley, between these huge concrete canyons rising hundreds of feet above the Buffalo River. There is no other place in the United States where that kind of experience can be had. What our previous generation thought of as kind of an eyesore or a liability or something that was outmoded and no longer providing jobs or any benefits to the community has been re-imagined and repurposed by this generation of Buffalonians.

We’re very fortunate that we have some very imaginative and risk-taking entrepreneurs who have taken what had been abandoned grain silos and turned them into these incredible visitor attractions, this stuff in the sense, and then we become the storytellers. It’s our job then to help the public become aware of these things, and even those experiences that I described there’s a multiple overlapping audiences, the outdoor recreation crowd, there’s an architecture crowd, there’s history people, and they each take what they’re interested in from that experiences of going through RiverWorks through Silo City here in Buffalo. We’re taking the past and really creating an interesting future out of that.

That’s really cool. I love that. Well, that’s unique. I’ve never heard of grain elevators as an experience before, and all those different ways that you can experience them. That’s really awesome.

It’s amazing what’s been done. I mean, concerts, we have actually roller derby in a former grain elevator complex. It’s restaurants, breweries, it’s really our waterfront, which was industrial for almost the entire history of Buffalo dating back to the early 1800’s, then had really sort of fallen on hard times post-1960’s. It’s really been just absolutely reinvented in the last few years. Now it’s actually an economic engine and a real driver of new activity here in Buffalo.

That travel writer that says, “Okay, what do you have that is completely different, absolutely unique?” We have an answer for them, and people are really responding. We had a record year this year in terms of bringing out-of-town travel media to Buffalo, and a lot of that is people just calling us and saying, “Hey, I’m hearing a lot of buzz about Buffalo, I need to come there or I want to send somebody there.” It’s kind of thrilling because 16 years ago when I started doing what I do, that was not the case.

Yeah, that’s awesome. That’s like pennies from heaven right there, when they call you.


Meet the Unexpected Buffalo

Great. Well, I really enjoy your perspective and this next question actually, again, you’ve sort of already hit on some of it, but maybe you can go a little bit deeper. We like to learn from challenges or I find that creativity really does show itself when you’re faced with some sort of adversity or a challenge. You have talked a little bit about some of the previous challenges that Buffalo has had as a city, and this reimagination and the resurgence of the city now. Are there any other challenges that you can think of that you can share with our listeners, and maybe a creative solution that you found in response to that?

Well, certainly, things are changing dramatically here, and we are seeing a lot more interest in the city on the part of travel media, and visitation is up and we’re building new hotels. I mean everything, all the trend lines are moving in a very exciting direction. Now there still are many people when we do focus groups in some of our key markets, who are still sort of bound by outdated perceptions, whether it’s Buffalo has a declining rust-belt city or a place where the weather is always bad or just an economically depressed place and without a lot going on. There’s still that challenge, and we find that sometimes it’s actually more persistent in nearby markets, like people in Rochester or Toronto or Hamilton may have these perceptions of Buffalo that really were perhaps valid 20 years ago, but are dramatically out of date now.

We still have this challenge of overcoming that, and we find in focus groups that people are often very determined to hang on to a point of view that you know when you are just saying, “No, no, hang on. We got a new story to tell you.” It almost is so counterintuitive that people don’t want to give up this perception they have of the place. We actually launched a campaign earlier this year called Unexpected Buffalo, Meet the Unexpected Buffalo. What we did is if you visit Buffalo you’ll see there are bisons out on the Thruway when you’re coming into town, on the sides of buildings, it’s obviously the American bison. The Buffalo is a symbol of our city, the Nickel City, we’ve been called over the years, and we thought, “We’re going to take this iconic representation of our city and actually deploy it to our advantage.”

We’ve created this character, the Unexpected Buffalo, and we’ve been doing photo shoots of the Unexpected Buffalo kayaking, the Unexpected Buffalo doing yoga, the Unexpected Buffalo on an open-air autobus tour of Buffalo, doing plain air painting in the courtyard at the Darwin Martin House. We developed this incredible library of the Unexpected Buffalo, literally he is kind of a half-human, half-bison guy, he’s a tall, dark, and furry guy, who is the representative of our community.

Credit: Eric Frick

[bctt tweet=”“We’ve created the Unexpected Buffalo as a symbol of our city.” – @ebuffNY #WhyCollaborate #podcast”]

When we talk about the Unexpected Buffalo, we’ve actually created a character, a personification of our destination, if you will, but when you say, “Meet the Unexpected Buffalo,” yeah, we now have this representative of our community, the embodiment of Buffalo that’s kind of eye-catching. Because as I have said, the photography and the photo retouching that we’ve done to create this character has really brought him to life, but when you say Unexpected Buffalo it’s also the fact that the city itself, for a lot of people is an unexpected. That they may think, “Oh Buffalo, what’s there? What can we possibly there? That’s a place where they’ve got chicken wings and it snows a lot, and they have a football and hockey team. What else is there to know?” The answer is plenty.

We’re a city that punches way above our weight class. We’ve got assets that much, much larger cities, capital cities around the country would be thrilled to have. We have one of the great museums of modern art, literally in North America, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. We’re the birthplace of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, as I said a home of great presidential history. A president, sadly, was assassinated in Buffalo, President McKinley, and then President Roosevelt took the oath of office, shortly thereafter in Buffalo. Grover Cleveland was from Buffalo. Millard Fillmore was from Buffalo. There’s tremendous presidential history here.

Credit: Nancy J Parisi

[bctt tweet=”“Buffalo is a city that punches way above our weight class. We’ve got great assets.” – @ebuffNY”]

There are things that really distinguish Buffalo from cities around the country, but as I said, for a lot of people there are stereotypes that we have to overcome to get them to consider Buffalo, to put us on their consideration set. We’re using this campaign, which is playful because we’ve created this creature, this personification of Buffalo, the unexpected Buffalo. It’s eye-catching because of the photography and the graphics work is just aptly so visually compelling, but it also has a very strong underlying message that you may think Buffalo is one thing, but your expectations are about to get a serious upgrade.

The Unexpected Buffalo, we’re just getting fantastic feedback, not only from the traveling public anecdotally but from focus groups that we’ve done. We have a Customer Advisory Council that convenes in Buffalo every year. These are meeting planners from all across North America, who really endorse this campaign and feel like it’s absolutely spot on in terms of changing people’s hearts and minds about Buffalo. We’re rolling with that. We feel like this has got tremendous legs and we expect this to be the focus of our marketing efforts at least for the next couple of years.

That’s awesome. That sounds really fun.

It is fun. It’s hard to describe, but it’s easy to show somebody, but it really is visually very, very appealing.

Right. Well, would we be able to find that on your website?


We’ll have a link to that on our show notes so listeners can go and check that out for sure, but what I like about it too though, is that you are testing it, like with that customer with your Customer Advisory Council.


It’s this great, fun idea, but then you have this research to back it up, and it’s not just kind of throwing it at the wall and seeing if it sticks. It’s very strategic and I think that’s just really awesome.

I think actually that speaks to a very good point about our business. I mean, you put things out there and your messaging has to change in terms of the response you’re getting. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to hit upon something that really gets that enthusiastic response, it’s getting traction and you’re lucky to roll it for three or four years, but everything has a shelf-life. You always have to plan for what happens when this kind of reaches that point where the market has been saturated. People have been seeing it for years and you need to change things up, which of course is one of the reasons why destination marketing organizations are constantly relaunching websites, launching new campaigns, looking for new taglines, going through branding initiatives because you can never really rest on your laurels in this business.

That’s great, that’s absolutely true.

Garden Walk Buffalo

Ed, is there a project in particular that’s coming up that you’re really excited about, that you can share with us?

Well, I feel like one of the things that we’ve been really pleased, and again, I guess this goes to the point of differentiation, we’ve been working very closely with the Garden community here in Buffalo for the last couple of years to launch what we’re calling the Buffalo Niagara Garden Tours Initiative. Really, this is building on the success of Garden Walk Buffalo, Garden Walk Buffalo takes place in the last weekend of July every year. It will actually be celebrating its 25th anniversary in two years, so it’s been around for a while. It is the largest free Garden Tour in the entire country. We get about 60,000 people come to Buffalo that final weekend of July and they tour. This last year I believe there were 407 private gardens that make their homes and gardens available for people to tour. It’s all free, and there is a shuttle that takes people around. This is all around the West Side of Buffalo, the neighborhood is known as the Elmwood Village.

You can walk through these beautiful, turn of the century neighborhoods, these tree-lined streets, kids selling lemonade, it actually is a very incredibly sweet and charming slice of Americano. You get garden folks who are just really looking to learn about gardens and see what other very accomplished gardeners have done with their homes, with their yards. There are also people just sort of like the vibe, the neighborhood, where this occurs is just a classic American neighborhood. In fact, the American Planting Association named it one of the 10 Great Neighborhoods in America a couple of years ago. There’s a great commercial thoroughfare right down the middle of it, where you can stop for coffee, drinks, lunch. It’s a really just nice experience and all the homeowners are just so pleased and proud, and willing to share their experiences.

The success of Garden Walk Buffalo really encouraged us to really think more broadly, “How can we build on the success of this one weekend and make garden experiences in Buffalo available for the course of an entire summer?” We essentially came up with the idea of open gardens. Last year we had 75 gardens, privately owned gardens that are available on Thursdays and Fridays for the entire month of July. We published a directory, we’ve got a description of the gardens and pictures, and directions, and again, this is completely free, encouraging people to come here for a long weekend.

We’ve started something called the Garden Art Sale that takes place, again the last weekend of June at our Botanical Gardens in South Buffalo. We’ve offered bus tours and we’ve had workshops. We’ve had speakers. We’re really trying to develop an identity for Buffalo as a great garden destination. Again, very counterintuitive, but our feeling is something that we can really say, “We have the largest free garden walk,” again a differentiator from other destinations. We’re building on that. It helps to dispel this notion of Buffalo this cold, snowy, gray place. I mean what could be more contrary than talking about Buffalo as a place that’s in bloom?

Credit: Joe Cascio

[bctt tweet=”“We’re developing an identity for Buffalo as a great garden destination.” – @ebuffNY #WhyCollaborate #podcast”]

In fact, just this past summer, we hosted the Garden Writers Association of United States. We had 350 garden writers, bloggers, photographers, influencers of all kinds here in Buffalo for a week. I have to tell you, the feedback has been unbelievable, people just publishing blogs, posting to social about it, writing articles about how absolutely enthralled they were with Buffalo’s gardens and the hospitality they met with here, and everything else they saw and experienced, whether it’s the architecture and the food. It really is becoming a strength of ours, and really one of our brand pillars, we’re really putting more energy and effort into that.

I think you mentioned in my bio I’m on the Board of Garden Buffalo Niagara, and that’s really very deliberate. We’re trying to forge a closer link with our horticultural community and the tourism community. We just see bigger and better things ahead. We’re already planning for the 25th anniversary of Garden Walk Buffalo in two years, and have some very exciting ideas that we hope to deploy. It’s something that people don’t think about or probably typically wouldn’t think about when they think about Buffalo. That’s one of the reasons we feel like it’s been so successful in helping our branding and messaging efforts to create a new image, a new story for our community.

That’s great, and another niche market, going along with your theme of knowing who your audience is and how to find them, and tapping into those 350 writers, that’s really awesome too. I’m sure that will pay dividends.

For years to come.

For months and years.

Absolutely. Well, and again you’re absolutely right, it was like looking around, at a certain point, my wife and I would go to Garden Walk Buffalo for years and we just love the experience. We just love talking to the gardeners, talking to people about their homes, how they’ve restored them, where they were from, and some of these stories were so moving and touching. This is one of my favorite things to do in Buffalo. It only started out with 29 gardens 23 years ago. It was just a very modest thing in one street, Norwood Avenue and the Elmwood Village. Those neighbors just thought, “Let’s do a little something to beautify our blocks, spruce up our homes, and then invite people to come and check it out.” It’s grown into this massive thing and just skipped to other neighborhoods and other blocks.

Now it’s the entire West Side of Buffalo and 400 gardens this past year. It was happening very organically and at a certain point, about five years ago Visit Buffalo Niagara said, “Wow, this is really something that we can use to drive visitation to our market.” It really became incorporated more formally into our marketing efforts, and then I got involved with horticultural community working with Garden Walk on Niagara, which is the entity that oversees Garden Walk Buffalo. Now it’s become a formal initiative, and we’ve gotten some grant funding to take this story out of market. We feel like this 25th anniversary that’s coming it’s going to be an inflection point that we really can leverage to get a lot of attention for Buffalo as, not only as a horticultural destination but everything that goes into that as well, the neighborhoods, architecture, the food, hospitality.

In fact, Travel + Leisure recently named Buffalo the number one friendliest city in the country, and if you come to Garden Walk Buffalo you’ll see why we got that designation. Somebody once said that in other cities they would call this trespassing, in Buffalo we call it Garden Walk Buffalo. Just stop by and sit down in the backyard and make yourself at home.

Right, that’s awesome.

Collaborations That Appeal to Tourists

Well, this has been just full of information. I’m really enjoying our conversation, I know we need to wrap up here in a few minutes, but before we get there I would like to talk a little bit about collaboration. It’s another theme that we like to focus on, on this podcast. I know you have a lot of experience in this area, and one of the things I like to call it when I talk about collaboration is this whole idea of what I call coopetition, where perceived competitors cooperate to create something that’s bigger than what they could do on their own. I’m wondering if you could talk about an example of a time when that worked for you?

Well, we’ve already mentioned like our Canadian Market Initiative with Destination Niagara USA. In the past, we’ve worked actually with the Corning Museum of Glass. One of the things we have here is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House, which is the largest residence that Wright ever designed. It’s 33,000 square feet. It’s set on a 1.5-acre campus in the Parkside neighborhood in Buffalo, which is this gorgeous neighborhood designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. There’s a lot of stuff going on there if you love great design, if you love Americano. That house in that neighborhood is really very special, but one of the distinguishing characteristics of the house is that it has more than 300 pieces of what Wright referred to as art glass, stained glass. The tree of life window, the art glass window is almost the icon of that house.

We also have many churches here that have Tiffany-designed windows, art glass windows. La Farge is another name of that great designer who designs stained glass windows. We thought, “Well, we’ve got this strength when it comes to stained glass windows,” with the Martin House it’s kind of the, really very unique sort of repository, if you will, of stained glass. We reached out to the Corning Museum of Glass, we know that many people when they’re driving to Buffalo from downstate New York to New York City Metro area, places like Philadelphia, Washington, often come through Central New York, and then up 17 through Corning and on to us to New York, and typically stop at the Corning Museum of Glass. It’s one of the most successful tourist attractions in the entire state.

Now this is a few years ago, but we put out a brochure, we created a landing page, trying to reach out to people interested in arts and crafts, and culture, fine arts, visual arts, suggesting that if you’re on your way to Buffalo stop off at the Corning Museum of Glass. If you are interested in stained glass and art glass artistry, that after you’re at the Corning Museum of Glass continue on to Buffalo, and that you’ll find many wonderful examples, not only at the Darwin Martin House but at the Buffalo’s houses of worship, which are absolutely as breath-taking and impressive as many Europeans cities. As I said, it’s Tiffany, it’s La Farge, the modern artist Ben Shahn created a series of amazing, huge stained glass installations at Temple Beth Zion on Delaware Avenue here in New Downtown, Buffalo, which are just spectacular, and unlike anything you’d seen anywhere else in the world.

We get a lot of examples that tied us with our colleagues, but also our competitors in Corning, which is about two hours from here. For me, that’s kind of top of mind example where we felt that it would be in the interest of both destinations to work together in positioning ourselves to cultural tourists.

Right. I think that’s a terrific example. Again, back to the niche, which seems to be the real theme with our conversation, but finding these unique and out-of-the-ordinary assets that you have, kind of tying them together and then looking around and seeing, “Who else has this type of an asset so we can actually really kind of position ourselves, and create a fuller experience?” I think that’s just a really great example.

I’d like you to go back through and talk a little bit more about the Canadian Program that you mentioned because we did talk about it in our pre-interview chat, but I think that that’s just a great program where you not only collaborate on it but used research and identified an opportunity and then worked with another DMO to pull a program together. Can you share a little bit more about that?

Sure. Visit Buffalo Niagara working with Destination Niagara USA, we had actually commissioned some research about the Canadian shopper. We knew that people came in great numbers from Southern Ontario to shop in Buffalo. They have been for generations. Typically, we hear that there’s a price differential in coming here, there’s product diversity. There are certain stores like Target for example, for many years was not in Canada. Macy’s at the Walmart Galleria, much of their client base is Canadian. Typically, our understanding of the Canadian shopper was that they came here for a very short period of time, for a transactional purpose, and once that transaction was consummated they got back in their car and returned to Canada, without leaving much economic impact behind.

We commissioned a study to really dig deeper into the behavior of the Canadian shopper, how large is that market, what’s the upside, if we can get some percentage of those people to stay longer, stay overnight, and leave some money behind in the form of a stay at a hotel or dinner, that type of thing. This research really showed that many of our assumptions were correct. That in fact, people come here for a very specific purposes, almost like running an errand to another country, and then turn right around and return to Canada, and really didn’t think of Buffalo as an experiential destination, a place where you go just to sort of like be and hang out and window shop, go out to dinner and go to a show.

The challenge really put a very specific focus to our efforts, in that the job was to get these people who already think of Buffalo as place to go for shopping to think a little bit more broadly, to educate them as to our cultural attractions, our culinary opportunities. Just other things to see and do that would make for a great overnight or a great weekend getaway. That was the foundation that the Canadian Marketing Initiative was built on. We applied for some grants through the Market New York Program which we were fortunate enough to receive. We’ve been mutually working together to do advertising in Southern Ontario, in the big population centers, Hamilton as you might imagine the GPA in London Ontario.

We’ve done print advertising. We’ve done digital campaigns. We’ve run television commercials up there. Very aggressive in media relations into Southern Ontario, and it’s really been paying off. We work very closely with Texas A&M University to do conversion studies of the conclusion of every annual campaign. Clearly, our message is being heard, really delivering a lot of incremental visitors, new visitors to Buffalo as a result of this campaign, significant economic impact to our partners in the hospitality industry. Significant sales tax and bed tax being generated for local and state government.

The program’s been a real success, and the cornerstone of it is a girlfriend getaway-focused, and this is really trying to get women who often travel — mothers traveling with daughters, women traveling with a group of friends — and getting them to think, “Okay, when you’re done shopping go to a spa. Go out to dinner. Stay overnight you’re going to have a blast.” The research that we continue to do is showing that people are having those experiences and the word of mouth has been tremendous that’s being generated in a lot of those experiences.

It’s almost a case study, identifying an opportunity, doing some very serious research to really clarify what your goals should be, and who your audience is going forward, what your message should be. Then really just executing the plan, and then continuing to take the temperature of your customers to make sure that you’re on track. Do you have to tweak your creative? Do you have to tweak your messaging? Then taking advantage of new technology when it comes out as well. As we were saying earlier in our conversation, there are new ways of delivering your message. Shopping in Buffalo is our Instagram page, that we created to sort of appeal to this cohort. We get a tremendous amount of engagement there. When we started doing this campaign about four years ago, that wasn’t a big part of it, but over the course of that, it’s become a very big part in terms of how we deliver our message.

That’s great. What I really like about how you summed that up at the end is just to say to continue to take the temperature of your customer, and how important that is, not just having the research on the front end that, that’s the strategy and puts the campaign in motion, but then checking in and testing that at the conclusion of a campaign or along the way so you can adjust it, I think is really great advice.

Ed, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. I appreciate you spending this time with us and sharing all of your knowledge. Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share before we say goodbye for today?

It’s been a real pleasure. I always love talking about my hometown. It’s an underdog city, and we always try harder. I think one of the things I have to say, if people do come me here they will definitely be struck by how friendly Buffalonians are, how much people appreciate visitors coming here, how willing they are to share a suggestion for a place to go, to eat or something to see and do. I think that really is something that’s very special about this town. To me, it’s a real honor and privilege to be able to tell that story and to be a part of Buffalo’s resurgence. Thank you for the opportunity to do that this morning.

Well, again, thank you for being with us and we’ll look forward to checking back with you at a future time. Thanks, Ed.

Thanks, Ms. Nicole.

Ways to contact Ed:

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