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Ed Hall: Hawking Rochester to travelers worldwide

A love of travel comes naturally to Ed Hall.
When he was growing up in Birmingham, Ala., his father worked for a local railroad. His family received company passes that allowed them frequent trips to see relatives in Detroit and Houston, or to spend weekends in New Orleans.
Now, as president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Visitors Association Inc., Hall is putting his lifetime of travel and tourism experience to work toward promoting the Rochester area.
Last year, this area hosted 1.56 million visitors, who spent $238 million during their stays. That is enough to support some 30,000 full-time job equivalents.
Hall and his staff of 24 employees spent more than $2.2 million last year to bring visitors to town. They expect this year’s budget to grow to $2.4 million.
Hall, 54, came to Rochester in May 1998 after serving five years as vice president and chief operating officer of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau in Texas. He also was president of the Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau for seven years, and acted as director of tourism for the state of Alabama.
“I’m happier professionally in a somewhat smaller community,” he says. “You can see results in a smaller city. It makes you feel good, makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something.”
Hall’s expressed interest in seeing the fruits of his labor belies his patience. In a profession where a campaign’s full effects may not be apparent immediately, he often must wait a long time before he can judge his success.
“A lot of stuff that we do is done for five to seven years down the road,” he says. “You get very little instant gratification in these jobs.”
He illustrates this by citing an example of working to bring a trade convention here. Hall spends months courting event planners who are weighing Rochester against other cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Albany.
Working with a base of more than 450 member businesses in a vast array of fields, GRVA tries to put event planners in touch with local experts who can add to a group’s experience here.
Hall notes the area’s business strengths-optics, precision engineering, telecommunications and bio-medical applications-often set it apart from competing venues.
“That makes more sense than trying to be all things to all people,” he says.
But his job does not end once planners have been persuaded to bring their conventions here.
“Part of our function is to solve people’s problems,” he says. “If you don’t like to solve problems, you’re in the wrong business.”
If everything goes as it should for Hall and his staff, conventioneers leave the area as ambassadors for the region, returning home to tell friends and family about their positive experience.
Along with spurring additional tourist interest in the region, their positive opinions may pack a more tangible punch. Someone visiting the area may be deciding where to build a plant or where to send a child to college, Hall says.
“One of the most satisfying things you can do is see that come to fruition,” he says.
The GRVA plans to publish its 100-page guide on the organization’s Web site by this fall. The guide targets event planners, the individuals who decide where conventions, conferences and other events take place.
It is a great step forward, but one communities nationwide are undertaking, notes Hall, who wants to differentiate the area from other contenders.
One of his first projects to help make Rochester stand out in the crowd of cities bucking for more visitor dollars was creating a 30-minute infomercial. Showcasing the attractions this locale has to offer, it aired on cable networks within a 300-mile radius.
“We didn’t feel like a 30- or 60-second commercial could do the job,” he says.
Aimed at creating much-needed brand recognition for the Rochester area, the ads portray the area as a family-friendly destination perfect for a long-weekend vacation.
“Most people today feel relatively cash-rich but time-starved,” Hall says. “They can never seem to put together enough time with the people they love.”
By extending the definition of family from the traditional nuclear assemblage to extended relatives and even groups of college friends, Hall and the GRVA hope to broaden the number of travelers they can woo.
“If you invest your time in coming here, it will be worth it,” Hall promises visitors.
Although it is important to put out a strong message about the community, it is important not to oversell it, he explains.
“You have to be honest,” he says.
In its second year, the infomercial campaign seems to be working.
“The response is wonderful to watch,” Hall says. “You can watch the traffic to the Web site spike for one or two hours after the show.”
The message also seems to be reaching the right audience. A GRVA survey of visitors found that 94 percent rated their experience as excellent.
The statistic shows the region is as good as promised, Hall says.
Originally envisioned as a three-year effort, the advertising blitz may extend into a fourth year if it remains successful.
Although last year’s GRVA figures showed a 42,000-visitor increase over 1998, growth in 2000 may be more difficult to achieve, Hall says. Business travel-a staple of the local total-is down nationwide.
But Rochester also has great potential as a destination for foreign tourists, Hall says. He sees visitors from countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Japan- mature markets that are filled with travelers who previously have visited the United States.
Often those people have come to this country four or five times, covering Walt Disney World, the major national parks and other mainstream attractions. Now, many want to see “the real America.”
Not counting Canadian tourists, 5.6 million international visitors come to New York each year.
“(Rochester’s) percentage was pitifully low because we haven’t been asking for the business,” Hall says.
To turn that around, Hall and the GRVA are working to sell the area through its large number of potential niche markets, such as fishing tours on the Great Lakes, canal tours, packages focusing on regional history and agricultural trips.
“I don’t want to compete head-to-head with Orlando,” he says.
Creating specialty-tourism markets to capitalize on a region’s unique resources is a familiar stratagem for Hall, says Dilcy Hilley, vice president of marketing and communications for the Birmingham visitors bureau and a decade-long colleague.
“He was instrumental in introducing the first black heritage tours to the country,” Hilley says. “The history in this state (Alabama) just begs to be spoken to.”
Hall views overcoming Rochester’s opinion of itself as his greatest challenge.
“We don’t believe strongly enough in this place,” he says. “We are way too self-critical. We have raised it to a fine art here.”
Even the most common complaint among residents-the weather-is not a major detractor in his view.
“This place does not become Antarctica in the winter,” Hall says. “That’s a big challenge for us to work on that (perception).”
He also sees great potential for increasing the number of visitors to the region-and corresponding tourist spending-through proposed improvements to Rochester’s mass transit capabilities.
“If they get high-speed rail through this corridor it will be a great success,” he says.
Hall notes the positive effects of rail improvements in California, which have reduced the number of automobiles on congested roadways.
“Rail makes a hell of a lot of sense,” he says. “Our problem is that we just don’t have enough of it. I get frustrated with these people who talk about Amtrak’s money-losing subsidy.”
That sets an unfair standard for the passenger rail corporation, established in 1970 by Congress, Hall explains. Other agencies charged with building the nation’s infrastructures, such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Highway Administration, are not expected to run in the black.
“We’ve got to stop looking at Amtrak differently than (other modes of transportation),” he says.
Likewise, he says, the proposal to create a fast ferry line between Toronto and Rochester could create further opportunities to grow this region’s tourism economy.
“People in Toronto are a highly mobile population. It’s a great business opportunity,” he says.
He looks forward to working on marketing projects specifically geared toward the 7.5 million people in that market. To that end, Hall will rely on the talents and ideas of his 24-person staff.
“I manage by walking around,” he says. “I’m there not to look over their shoulder to see if they’re doing it, but to help them if they need help.”
One of his first supervisors taught him the greatest lesson of his career: Not every marketing campaign succeeds, but when given the leeway to fail, occasionally it allows people to be more creative. Hall has tried to employ that strategy here.
“I manage people as professional adults striving to do the best they can,” he says. “I don’t kill them for their mistakes. I just ask them to learn from (the mistakes) and not do it again.
“I’d rather have the occasional screw-up to get to the out-of-the-box ideas than to have a safe, comfortable environment that is satisfied with the status quo.”
Hilley fondly recalls the decade she spent working with Hall.
“He’s receptive to innovative ideas but smart enough to know when they’re too innovative,” she says. “It really made us angry because he was always right.”
She calls Hall a “tourism promotion genius.”
“He empowers people,” says Pamela Summers, who worked with Hall in Houston for five years and now serves as CEO of the Convention Bureau of Granbury (Texas). “He knows how to let people go and do their own thing, but he guides them along.”
Summers also calls Hall a team player who worked with the staff in Houston as well as the close-knit tourism community throughout Texas.
“I learned a lot from him,” she says.
When he is not working to spread the word about Rochester’s attributes, Hall often can be found photographing wildlife.
“I spend a lot of time with a camera in front of my face,” he says.
He notes that while his favorite pets are dogs, big cats are his preferred photographic subjects. He admires their loyalty to each other, combined with their power and strength.
Hall travels to Africa with a half-dozen friends every other year for a photographic safari. The group last year visited Botswana and Zimbabwe. For next year’s adventure, they have their eye on Tanzania.
“It’s a rejuvenation thing for me,” he says.
One photo makes Hall particularly proud.
“It’s an old male lion sitting under an acacia tree, with the sun setting on his face and his paw on a hank of a zebra he had taken down earlier that day,” Hall says. “He’s not beautiful anymore because he’s had a rough life, (but) there’s a certain peace in his face.”
“The most fascinating place I’ve ever been is the Serengeti,” he says. “(The) migration of the plains animals is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
Back home in Bushnell’s Basin, Hall enjoys cooking, especially Italian cuisine such as homemade pasta.
He confides, however, that he may rank as the world’s messiest cook.
“You have to use every utensil,” he jokes. “The kitchen looks like a small thermonuclear device has gone off when I’m done.”
Food is a large part of the reason he has never used his given first name, Thomas. Growing up on a block with four other Tommys, his mother thought Hall would never respond to her calls to come home for lunch.
While many executives grow to rue their constant travel, Hall enjoys that aspect of his job.
“My career has, in a way, been a hobby,” he says. “(It is) rewarding to get to travel a lot. Travel is an immensely rewarding experience.
“I can’t tell you how blessed I have been to have accidentally chosen this (as my) life’s work.”

8/18/00

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