Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance president Alexa Gifford was sitting in her office one day last summer when a call came to the Penn Yan-based agency from representatives of the Today Show.
The NBC morning show wanted to profile the region, specifically the Corning Museum of Glass and a second site within 20 minutes of the Southern Tier city.
“Well, the Finger Lakes is 9,000 square miles,” Gifford says, recalling the conversation. “(We said) let’s talk about this a little bit. So we did some scouting for them, and it turned out to be an incredible experience.”
In addition to the glass museum, Today Show staff sailed aboard the vintage schooner Malibar X on Seneca Lake in Schuyler County. They ate at the Jail House Restaurant in Owego, Tioga County. They visited a winery and Mehlenbacher’s Taffy in Hammondsport, Steuben County. They toured the Farmer Phil Bennett log cabin site in Howard, Steuben County, and the National Soaring Museum in Elmira, Chemung County.
A one-day visit extended to three days.
“It was amazing that we were able to stretch them that far,” Gifford says. “It turned out to be almost a six-minute segment.”
The visit typifies the marketing strategy put into place by Gifford, 40, who was named president of the Finger Lakes Tourism Association-which operates under the business title of Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance-in April 2002.
Finger Lakes Tourism oversees 14 counties: Cayuga, Chemung, Cortland, Livingston, Monroe, Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Tioga, Tompkins, Wayne and Yates.
“Alexa has far exceeded what I thought anyone could do when she took over,” says Gregory Marshall, vice president of marketing for the Greater Rochester Visitors Association Inc.
Gifford faced significant financial challenges in 2002 and the difficult task of aligning 14 county agencies under one marketing umbrella, Marshall says.
“The whole structure of the organization has changed to that of a business contracting firm,” Marshall says.
“(Member counties) are reluctant to let the tourism limelight shine on an organization that may or may not be there for them,” he says. “What you had in the past was a lot of divergent interests.”
Finger Lakes Tourism employs six full-time employees and one part-time staffer. It has a $500,000 operating budget-which pays for the building, salaries and marketing activities-and a $300,000 regional advertising budget used in cooperation with its 14 counties for advertising placement and niche marketing.
The regional advertising budget entitles Finger Lakes Tourism to $300,000 in matching state and federal funds that are passed through to the 14 counties.
The agency’s marketing activities include trade shows throughout the country as well as occasional international events such as one earlier this month in London.
A regional perspective
“The biggest initiative, and the one that will continue to be the challenge as we move forward, is promoting from a regional perspective,” Gifford says. “It’s getting (county tourism officials) to get it about regionalization, so that we’re not competitors with each other. We want to get cities like Rochester and Syracuse realizing that they are part of the Finger Lakes region, that they get benefits from being part of the Finger Lakes region.
“We’re actually competing with the Adirondacks, the Catskills, Florida, London and the world, really. By banding together, we create that branding and brand initiative so that people think about the Finger Lakes.”
The competition among Finger Lakes counties for tourism dollars does not begin until after the visitor arrives, she says. That is a change from as recently as five years ago when the regional organization would market itself at out-of-state trade shows while some of its member counties set up individual booths at the same event.
“Now we go to those consumer shows as the region, and the counties fold into that and represent the region, and then their destination,” she says.
The same philosophy applies to advertising campaigns, which has improved the bottom line for Finger Lakes Tourism and for its counties.
“It used to be that, five years ago, you could open a magazine and there would be two or four or five counties advertising in it,” she says. “Now we coordinate our whole advertising campaign so that if the regional organization is advertising there, the counties don’t, unless they do it the next week or the week before.”
A novice approach
Gifford was an industry novice when she joined Finger Lakes Tourism in 2000 as a part-time marketer. She previously was a marketing director for New York State Electric and Gas Corp. in Binghamton for nearly 15 years.
“I was married and pregnant with our second child,” she says. “We had a house on Seneca Lake (near Penn Yan) and a townhouse in Binghamton. And I loved the Finger Lakes so much. I wanted to take some time off and spend some time with our children. The next thing I knew, we had sold our townhouse and moved to the Finger Lakes because it’s so beautiful.”
Gifford’s husband, Mark, is an energy consultant at NYSEG who often was out of town on business trips during the week. Because of that, Gifford decided to get a part-time job to keep busy.
“Somebody told me that the regional tourism organization was looking for a marketing person,” she recalls. “I went in and talked to them because I figured marketing principles are marketing principles.”
Gifford was interviewed by then-president Lynn Herzig.
“He was looking for five days,” she says. “I was looking for three. We settled at four. That lasted about a month-until I realized that there was so much work to do that four days wasn’t going to cut it.”
Her lack of experience in tourism-although she has been an avid traveler-became an asset. She replaced Herzig when he resigned in April 2002.
“The thing that was most beneficial for me in this whole career change was not having the background, not having the experience of ‘This is the way we’ve always done it and this is the way we should be looking at it,'” she says. “I was able to look at it with totally fresh eyes and a totally different perspective.”
Her new career, she says, is infinitely more interesting than her old one.
“It’s certainly a lot more fun,” says Gifford, who was born and raised in Hancock, near Binghamton. “The utility was great for me. I grew up there, and I had various jobs at the utility, and I really liked what I did. But I love travel.
“I’m not a native of the Finger Lakes, but to this day I’m in awe when you drive through it of just how spectacular it is. It’s exciting to talk about tourism and how it affects the economy.”
Gifford revamped the tourism agency’s travel guide, using information received from Finger Lakes visitors as part of a market study. The revised publication won the I Love New York regional tourism award in 2003.
“The No. 1 reason, in every study we do, why people come here is for the scenic beauty and the relaxation,” she says. “It just blows them away when they get here. It’s awesome.
“Some of the people who live here forget how beautiful it really is. It’s just breathtaking, and then, oh, by the way, we have 90 wineries, we have world-class museums, we have incredible history, we have great festivals, we have great skiing. It’s a four-season destination. What we try to do is, based on the market segment, target to those individuals’ interests.”
Gifford also oversaw changes to the agency Web site, www.fingerlakes.org.
“When I got there the Web site was virtually non-existent and very lightly traveled-a couple thousand visitors a month,” she says. “Now we get anywhere from 25,000 to 45,000 visitors (monthly). Everything we market drives people to our Web site because people make decisions based on what they find on the Web.”
A greater focus has been placed on the region’s niche markets, such as wineries and cultural attractions, rather than trying to be all things to everybody, Gifford says.
“She represents an entire region in all its aspects: the lodging, the restaurants, the wineries, the lakes, all of the different
attractions,” says James Trezise, president of the Penn Yan-based New York Wine & Grape Foundation.
“What she does benefits the wine industry because she brings a lot of people to the Finger Lakes for other reasons, and then they discover the wineries. I approach it from the other end. I’m trying to bring people to the wineries in the Finger Lakes, and also in other regions. When they go to the wineries, they can discover the bed-and-breakfasts and the hotels and the recreational attractions.”
Gifford and Trezise recently gave a joint presentation at the I Love New York Conference in Lake Placid on how to use the wine industry to enhance wineries and tourism.
“She is a top-flight professional,” Trezise says. “She’s talented, dedicated and very energetic in terms of promoting the Finger Lakes region, including the Finger Lakes wine industry.”
Gifford has streamlined the agency’s board of directors, reducing it from 44 to 19 and including only those with a direct interest in tourism and its success. Each of the 14 county directors appoints a private-sector representative, and five additional members are elected by the county directors.
The board meets every other month, usually at Finger Lakes Tourism headquarters in Penn Yan.
“(Forty-four members) was way too many people to manage,” Gifford says. “Whoever would show up this month wouldn’t show up next month. It’s very hard to get any continuity if you don’t have the same people coming and sitting at the table on a monthly basis.
“And you had people who really weren’t in the tourism business. So maybe it wasn’t as high a priority for them to get to every meeting. Now you have people who are living and breathing the tourism industry. So therefore it’s important that they show up at the table and their voice be heard.”
Enjoying the Finger Lakes
When she is not working, Gifford spends most of her time with her husband-whom she met at NYSEG-her son Eric, who turns 7 today, and 5-year-old daughter Sydney at the town of Dresden lakefront home the family has owned for 10 years.
“My children are my main focus,” she says. “We do a lot of things that are children-friendly, like biking and walking. We spend a lot of time on the lake, doing a lot of boating.”
As for her professional career, Gifford is leaving her options open.
“I’m sure there are next steps,” she says. “I can’t say that, 20 years from now, this is the answer.
“I feel good about where we’re at. I feel real good about the major changes that we made, in the board and the structure. I think that works. Will it work five years from now? That depends on the market. It depends on what’s happening.”
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11/19/04 (C) Rochester Business Journal