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).
As 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.