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At conference, panelists focus on value of tourism as economic engine

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Gearing up for the 2014 Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in Secaucus, even as the state's businesses recover from Hurricane Sandy, was the subject of Mdest12, North Jersey's travel and tourism conference, presented today by the Meadowlands Liberty Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Among the speakers at the Sheraton Meadowlands in East Rutherford were Jeff Anding, director of external affairs for the convention and visitors bureau of New Orleans, which will host the Super Bowl on Feb. 3, and Susan Townsend, vice president of visitor services for Visit Indy; Indianapolis hosted the annual football championship game in February 2012.

The Mdest conference had to be rescheduled because of Sandy, and a new session was added: "From Super Zone to Recovery Zone" featuring a discussion with Anding about the lessons from Hurricane Katrina on how a region rebuilds after a natural disaster while simultaneously maintaining or regaining its visitor appeal.

Both Anding and Townsend said the Super Bowl is a 10-day event, but they urged the local tourism community not to go into it with unrealistic expectations for the amount of business they will do.

Anding said a restaurant that normally is 60 percent full on the weekend will see a bump from the Super Bowl, but “you can’t expect to retire off this four-day period — it is unrealistic. … It is up to the businesses to maximize their opportunity and not think it will be their whole year.”

Townsend said Indianapolis was able to use the Internet and social media to drive business to local tourism venues and restaurants. One way the host committee helped restaurants was by texting information on the wait time at tables, so tourists could walk around the block and get a table in a few minutes, instead of waiting in line for two hours.

She urged the group to make extensive contingency plans for the weather; Indianapolis had a shovel brigade it did not have to use.

Anding said the Super Bowl committee has to get the message out that New Jersey is still a tourist destination, even after Sandy.

Townsend said the NFL will begin to plan the 2014 Super Bowl the day after the Feb. 3 game in New Orleans, and will shift into high gear next summer. “Once they turn their attention to you, it is all hands on deck,” she said.

Participating in a roundtable discussion of tourism's role in economic development were Wayne Hasenbalg, chief executive of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority; Brad Mayne, CEO of MetLife Stadium; Dennis Robinson, CEO of Grand Prix of America at Port Imperial; Jeff Gural, chairman of American Racing and Entertainment and Michael Gehrisch, CEO of Destination Marketing Association International.

Speaking during the round table discussion on "tourism as economic development" Gehrisch talked about product development from a destination marketing perspective. "Over the last few years, we have tried to reposition destination marketing as an investment," he said. "It attracts investment and creates jobs."

Hasenbalg cited a March 2012 report on how to promote tourism in New Jersey. The report favored creation of an organization to integrate tourism and events, which led to a state law redefining the mission of the sports authority.

"It has a new primary mission, marketing New Jersey through tourism and competing in the international marketplace to bring events to all of New Jersey. Events are important to the state, and the sports authority has a mission to bring events to all parts of the state," he said. "We will expand beyond the Meadowlands and bring events throughout the state, all the way to Cape May."

Gehrisch said the sports market has proven lucrative for states throughout the country. "Every city really has an opportunity to pump local cash into the public coffers. That not only affects the visitor experience, but it provides a lifestyle for residents who enjoy this after the visitors leave," he said.

Gural said racing has fallen on hard times due to its failure to market itself, and the decision years ago not to televise racing.  

“We have our work cut out for us to revitalize horse racing in the Northeast,” he said. “The Meadowlands is a work in progress. … We have to make it family oriented and figure out what will work and what will not work. In order for me to succeed, I have to change the image of the racetrack — it has to be a cool place to go.”

Gural also said it is inevitable the state will one day allow casino gambling at the Meadowlands. “Common sense tells me there will be a casino there. We need to give Atlantic City time to turn around. But I have my fingers crossed,” he said.

Robinson noted that Formula One racing is the pinnacle of racing. "When the F1 cameras come to New Jersey, we are going to be in 188 countries around the world, with 100,000 people coming to New Jersey and the metropolitan area," he said. "We are 19 months away from the race, and it is already having an economic impact on the region."

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