Small town/big falls has morphed into a major tourist and convention destination


by Linda Deckard

REPORTING FROM NIAGARA FALLS, ONTARIO — With the grand opening of the $100 million Scotiabank Convention Centre here last month, Niagara Falls has just about completed its revival program.

Twenty years ago, Niagara Falls was a nice place to pull over and take a picture of one of the wonders of the world, said Wayne Thomson, former mayor and current chair of Niagara Falls Tourism. Today, it draws 12 million visitors annually and the skyline has changed dramatically.

The biggest change prior to the convention center was the introduction of casinos, the first in 1995. The final piece of the puzzle is 80-passenger, articulated buses to take tourists to the many points of interest in the region, Thomson said. The city already has $50 million, half each from the provincial and federal governments, and Thomson hopes the buses will be running this year.

The area, he notes, has numerous tourist attractions, an extensive protected park system, world class hotels, quaint towns like Niagara on the Lake and 100 cottage wineries. Fifteen five-star golf courses have gone up here in the last eight years, Thomson added. “The fact we didn’t have a convention center was actually odd to some people in the meeting planner world and to various elected officials. It wasn’t that much of a stretch,” recalled Dragan Matovic, chair of the Regional Tourism Organization and a real estate developer by trade.

With 15,000 hotel rooms and a whole bunch of attractions, the convention center was not seen in traditional terms as a panacea, a catalyst for development, Matovic said. Development was already in place in the Honeymoon Capital of the World.

The various stakeholders — the hotels, restaurants and attractions — within blocks of the convention center have actually stepped up to fund a portion of the ongoing operating costs for Scotiabank Convention Centre in an unusual cooperative effort. Matovic said the evolution of the Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) was organic. The province had already set up a system for BIAs. How they collect and use their funds is up to the organization. In Niagara Falls, two of the BIA’s, representing two streets of tourist venues, have chosen to guarantee operating funds for the convention center, monies that traditionally come from value added taxes or millages.

Kerry Painter, general manager of the convention center, described the system in place, pointing out first that the venue has no debt service, having been paid for by federal and provincial funds. The operating budget, however, is hers to cover. This convention center is a public/private partnership. The land and building have been deeded to the city, so there are no season permit costs incurred. The operating budget is $3.9 million annually and Painter is responsible for breaking even each year. She operates with a fulltime staff of 34 and another 100 part time. Sources of revenue include $620,000 a year in sponsorships.

Two BIAs, one on Fallview Ave., the other on Victoria Street, have pledged a combined $1.125 million a year to subsidize the operation, she said. Every hotel, restaurant and attraction in the BIA contributes to the fund. In turn, they have representation on the board.

“There is not a tax dollar from any local taxpayer in this building,” Painter said. “This is the only venue in Canada that functions that way.”

Since the shareholders own tourist attractions, hotels and restaurants in town, operations can get interesting. Painter likened it to a Global Spectrum or SMG, both contract management firms, created to manage nothing but one building. And since the BIAs benefit from the conventions and meetings booked, it’s a perfect circle, she said. There is none of the usual “my business/your business” squabbling because the hotels have to pick up the convention center’s bottom line.

It does get tricky though, because those same shareholders are competitive with each other. Painter sometimes has to withhold information from her board until hotels and function spaces are selected by the upcoming convention.

“It’s hard to piece together in a way. I’m really the neutral party. I’m not in direct competition. Anything I book, one of them wins or all of them win. If they don’t help me get the show into town, no one wins. It focuses us on destination, destination,” Painter said. There are times Painter puts together a whole bid package for a customer, including best offers from the hotels, and the hotels don’t know what their competitors bid. “It got unusual, because I had to say to my board you can see my sales sheet, my numbers, that’s the responsible thing to do, but you can’t see who they are or where they’re going because I can’t give you an upper hand so you can close the deal,” Painter said. “It took a long time to sort through.”

The other $2.5 million of her operating budget comes from operating revenues and sponsorships. Centerplate has the food service, and that is key to marketing the building and to the bottom line.

Des Hague, president and CEO of Centerplate, estimated food service revenues will be between $3 million and $5 million initially at Scotiabank Convention Centre. He sees this account as a showcase, “another crown jewel moment for our growth in Canada.”

He has a great team in place and the venue fits Centerplate’s mission to be hospitality driven, bringing signature service to each account. In Niagara Falls, Centerplate is all about local vegetables, local fruits and local wines, Hague said.

“We talk about how food can drive the overall entity’s revenues,” Hague said. “In Niagara, that means how many more concerts can we book in the theater with food being a competitive lever to sell more tickets.” It’s not just about the food, it’s about the experience, he said. Hague expects Niagara Falls to be right in line with the company average of 10 percent increases annually.

“Centerplate keeps saying this building has such spirit, the ‘unconventional’ approach that makes everybody constantly rise to a level or a thought. It helps that it’s a midsize building. You can take more time and care than with a monster,” Painter said.

Painter said 40,000 people came to opening week festivities at Scotiabank Convention Center, including a hundred meeting planners as invited guests. She has 48 contracts on the books already. Besides the 288,000 sq. ft. convention center, she has a 1,026-seat theater, where she hopes to book 150 events, 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting rooms and an 18,000 sq. ft. ballroom.

The marketing line for the convention center is “UnConventional Experience,” with the added description, “Vivid, Abundant, Original.”

For the region, the marketing campaign is about “One Wonder After Another,” Thomson said. Niagara Falls Tourism has a budget of $2.3 million, of which $1.5 million is dedicated to marketing, he said. The RTO has another $3.2 million, with an ongoing spring campaign budgeted at $2.8 million.

Niagara Falls Tourism is concentrating on Ontario and Quebec and Europe right now because of the passport issue in the U.S., Thomson said.

The ratio used to be 60/40 U.S. versus Canadian visitors, he said. Today, it’s 70 percent Canadian.

The other challenge is getting the word out. Niagara Falls has grown up. It’s so much more than a photo op, there’s just no believing it without visiting. “Niagara Falls has a wealth of experiences, assets and attractions. We just need to coordinate the marketing and resource that properly. That’s the next challenge,” Matovic said.

Interviewed for this story: Kerry Painter, (905) 357-6222; Dragan Matovic, (905) 371-7104; Wayne Thomson, (905) 359-2238; Des Hague, (203) 975-5924