• Destination Newark: How travel & tourism (yes) might spur economic growth

    by Andaiye Taylor, Founder & Editor, BrickCityLive.com

by Andaiye Taylor

I was watching football at Taste Venue downtown Newark last fall when a man and his pre-teen daughter, both clad in New York Giants football jerseys, walked in.

The man’s request for a menu revealed an English accent, and we soon struck up a conversation. I learned that he and his daughter were visiting the United States for three weeks. He’d planned a heavy itinerary for the area, including the Giants game they had just returned from seeing at MetLife Stadium.

“So where are you guys staying?” I asked, figuring the answer would be Hotel Indigo, since the pair had walked in from the direction of Broad Street.

“We’re staying at the Riviera,” he said.

The Riviera?

That was the tallish building at the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Clinton Avenue that looked like it must have represented the height of luxury — in 1929 (in fact, the hotel was built in 1922). I remember attending tap dance classes in a carriage house behind a brownstone across the street from the Riviera as a kid, and thinking the place’s glory days were long past.

I had no idea it was a functioning hotel.

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But our new friend thought the hotel was decent. He said the neighborhood was a little on the rough side, but “I’ve lived in rougher places in Manchester,” he told us, referring to his hometown in England. For him, the Riviera was a good option for an extended international trip. He wanted to use his cash to make the most of his and his daughter’s excursions into New York City, as opposed to having lodging eat up a significant portion of their budget.

How did they get to Penn Station?

“We use the bus,” he said matter-of-factly.

To be sure, his opinion of Hotel Riviera isn’t a common one — most reviews of the hotel aren’t pretty, though there are other notable exceptions. But the encounter revealed just how much potential Newark has to capture hospitality and tourism dollars from even the most far-flung visitors – and even in locations that aren’t as easily walkable to New York trains as the city’s downtown hotels.

Marketing Newark to the world, with hurdles to clear

It is exactly this potential that the Greater Newark Convention and Visitor’s Bureau was set up to develop into a sizable economic opportunity for Newark.

The GNCVB is a 501(c)(6) convention and visitor’s bureau tasked specifically with drawing people into Newark to fill hotel rooms, book longer stays, and spend their money in Newark outside of their hotels. The vast majority of the bureau’s budget – about 90 percent – is funded by local hotels themselves via a 1.5 percent fee assessed on Newark’s overnight hotel visitors.

With that money, the bureau engages in marketing and sales activities on behalf of Newark’s hotels and its broader local economy, including marketing the city itself, touting its hotels and attractions, and trumpeting its infrastructure and accommodations. The targets for these activities are both leisure tourists, where the message is “stay for less and explore more,” and potential institutional clients like sports leagues, educational institutions, and professional associations.

But that work is not without its complications: as you might have guessed, perceptions of Newark are an issue, especially in the Northeast corridor.

“Newark’s brand in the news is a hurdle, especially by the New York media,” said Bob Provost, chief executive of the GNCVB. “In this massive media market, the only time they really care to talk about us is when something sufficiently violent to cover happens here.”

Given his former role as chief marketing officer at The Star Ledger, Provost understands very well the mechanisms that drive such single-note coverage of Newark. New Jersey is geographically positioned between two substantial media markets: New York City, which is also the media capital of the world, in the north, and Philadelphia in the south.

That means New Jersey-based stories often don’t break through the reams of possible stories in those markets until they meet the “if it bleeds it leads” threshold.

How does this affect Newark in particular? “Every market area needs an urban core,” said Provost. “Newark is the only city that has the attributes that constitute a major urban center,” he added, citing the Newark Museum, Prudential Center, NJPAC, rail hub, seaport, airport, workforce, employers, and people as making Newark a cultural and commercial center of gravity in the area.

GNCVB’s nuts-and-bolts marketing ground game

But unless and until the way we conceptualize Newark’s place within the state changes, GNCVB’s mission to market the city as an attractive destination will continue to rely almost exclusively on the bureau’s ground game.

The first way they achieve that is through good, new-fashioned digital marketing. The bureau’s director of marketing and communications, Lauren Hall, oversees the effort to make sure the city is in the conversation, and puts its best foot forward, as people start searching online for travel options in the area. The bureau’s analytics allow them to track interest in Newark down to the country level. From 2014 to 2015, according to GNCVB, their flagship website, NewarkHappening.com, has seen traffic almost double from China, Canada and Germany, and an increase of more then five times from Brazil.

The bureau invests considerable time in creating and publishing articles to NewarkHappening.com about Newark that will turn up as search engine results when people look for accommodations and attractions in the region. That strategy results in the creation of search engine-friendly content like “Top Ten To Dos in Newark and NYC.” (New York City itself is tenth on the list; Newark-based attractions are ranked one through nine).
Cherry Blossoms TripAdvisorAs part of their search engine strategy, the bureau also works to uncover assets and facts about Newark that often go overlooked, but that they consider attractive selling points for the city, like Branch Brook Park’s cherry blossoms. (The cherry blossoms are listed as the number one “thing to do” on the site’s top ten list.)

The digital efforts also extend to the highly influential realm of online travel sites and guides, both domestically and internationally. GNCVB has partnered with the influential travel recommendation website TripAdvisor, which 72 percent of travelers check before making a booking decision, to build custom content and own the story about tourism and attractions in Newark. They will soon publish three stories a month about Newark in the American Airlines travel guide. They even have a strategic partnership with Chinese travel site Ctrip, which at 22 million users has more than quadruple the monthly traffic of Expedia. In 2015, GNCVB welcomed Air China’s first fight to Newark.

And then there are the face-to-face sales efforts. While individual tourists will explore options for Newark hotel accommodations and lodging using search engines and travel sites, institutional clients – the types that will book large blocks of rooms for conventions, conferences, and the like — are more convinced by conventional tours and face-to-face sales pitches.

Provost personally handles those efforts. When we spoke, he’d recently lead a presentation about Newark for key leadership of Marriott’s corporate sales team, which is responsible for more than $10 million worth of hotel bookings for major corporations. “Our goal in those meetings is to challenge people’s conception of the Newark they thought they knew,” he said. “We want them to come away thinking that this is a city with world-class assets.”

Those types of meetings also get down to brass tacks — the nuts and bolts of meeting space, dining options, hotel room quality and rates — that influence whether they will win major booking opportunities.

“We play concierge and usher for people around the world when they come to Newark,” he told me.

It’s through these types of activities that Provost hopes to attract large opportunities for Newark. For example, he said the bureau is currently working with the world’s largest planner of youth STEAM programs. For the five-day student program, NJIT will be the host institution where programming will take place, and the students involved will stay at local hotels. To close that opportunity, the bureau put Rutgers Business School, the Greater Newark Conservancy, and nearby Liberty Science Center into the mix as components of a package of experiential opportunities.

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According to the GNCVB, both their digital and face-to-face efforts have lead to positive results that the bureau can measure. They said the occupancy rate for the nearly 4,000 hotel rooms in Newark was 72.3 percent when the bureau started up in July 2008, and stood at 75.4 percent in 2015. That represented nearly 12 percent growth in rooms sold, nearly 44 percent growth in room sales revenues, and more than $2 million in tax revenue growth for the city, according to GNCVB data.

They also said the number of people searching for Newark hotels is up 59 percent in volume in 2015 versus 2014, and that the city’s share of global search on the hotel booking search engines they measured nearly doubled. Those data suggest that “awareness” — people seeking out Newark ahead of time as an option instead of coming across the city during the course of browsing online — has increased during the GNCVB’s watch because of their marketing and sales activities.

In addition to digital efforts to reach consumers, the bureau plans to invest in live marketing assets in 2016, including making hotel concierge staff and local travel planners more aware of the city’s attractions, pursuing the deployment of Newark-branded merchandise for sale at Newark Liberty International Airport, and developing hospitality programs targeting prospective college students and their families. The bureau will also unveil Newark Walks, which is a 5k walking trail meant to introduce city residents, commuters, and visitors to more than 80 city landmarks (signature green signs for the trail have already been spotted downtown).

A challenge, and an opportunity for transformational growth

According to their own data, GNCVB’s work has lead them in a positive direction in terms of the metrics they’re assessed on – increasing bookings, lengths of stay, and per capita dollars spent at Newark’s restaurants and attractions – but there’s still a long way up from a 75 percent booking rate.

One development that will simultaneously present a challenge and opportunity for the bureau’s booking goals is the fact that a lot more rooms will soon become available.

“There are currently six hotels under construction or under consideration in Newark” right now, Provost said. That represents 800 more rooms, or a more than 11 percent increase in the current room inventory. The GNCVB will have to help hotels increase bookings by an average of 600 per night — or 219,000 per year — just to maintain their current occupancy rate.

Maximizing tourism potential in Newark will require moving towards activities that can have a transformational impact on Newark’s positioning and ability to win large bids for accommodations.

“What we really need is a convention center,” said Provost. “And a casino is only valuable with a convention enter. If you have a casino, you sell more conventions.”

He continued: “There are many events we literally can’t bid on because they want an arena and a convention center.” He cited the Times Union Center arena and nearby Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York as example of that type of winning combination.

Provost is also passionate about an idea to convert Newark Symphony Hall into a national African-American Arts and Entertainment Hall of Fame and Museum, citing the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville as an example of what’s possible with that type of attraction as an economic catalyst.

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“The Country Music Hall of Fame is in the middle of nowhere, yet it got 962,000 visitors last year,” he said. “Say half of those people were in Nashville just for [the Hall of Fame]. At double occupancy, that’s [more than] 200,000 rooms at $100 a night ($20 million per year) in hotel sales. That’s the kind of growth and long-term transformational project we need.”

The current plan for the African-American Hall of Fame positions Symphony Hall as an organic place for this type of attraction because “many of the world’s greatest African American artists have performed at Newark Symphony Hall.” Year round, the institution could attract hundreds of thousands of visitors and serve as a hub for arts education, according to language in the facility’s proposal. A yearly induction ceremony could additionally draw focused national and global attention to the city.

The proposal would convert thousands of square feet of abandoned space at Symphony Hall into spaces for “exhibits, meetings, workshops, lectures, classes, rehearsals, social events and small performances,” as the proposal document puts it. It would also reface the venue itself, removing the marquee and showcasing the building’s original columns. Provost said the idea is past the conceptual phase, and that engineers are currently being brought into the conversation.

While he’s excited about what’s possible for Newark Symphony Hall, other transformational ideas that can help scale bookings in Newark are already here, Provost said.

“There are local events we can partner with and help as they plan to become larger visitor attractions,” he observed.

“Look at what they’re doing with the Lincoln Park Music Festival,” Provost continued, referring to the annual three-day festival that takes place about a block south of Newark Symphony Hall, and will enjoy its eleventh anniversary when it kicks off at the end of this month. “I think with the way they’re thinking about that festival, it can definitely grow into a destination event,” he said.

Hotel Indigo and the Broad Street Marriott are mere blocks from the site of the festival, and could see significant bookings if the event draws more out-of-towners.

Also in walking distance to Lincoln Park: Hotel Riviera.