When you think about tourism in the Garden State, you think about the Jersey Shore.
Michael Davidson knows that all too well, so it's been no easy task to shine a light on Newark's nearly $3 billion tourism industry. And growing that industry may prove even more difficult.
“The reputation of Newark has been what it's been,” said Davidson, executive director of the Greater Newark Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The question is, how do we change that conversation? And I think that's always going to be the challenge.”
Making that change to help grow Newark's tourism industry is top of mind this week. On Tuesday, the city is hosting Super Bowl media day, an event that will draw thousands of visitors to the state's largest city.
It's an uphill climb for a place that suffered from decades of decline and still has neighborhoods dogged by gun violence, but stakeholders say they're now getting the tools they need to change the perception and capitalize on the base of cultural, entertainment and dining amenities that Newark has to offer.
Davidson's group next month will see the first piece of long-term, steady funding under a city ordinance passed last year, he said. The measure created a tourism improvement district that's now funded by a 1.5 percent assessment on all hotel fees in Newark, which currently sells about 1 million room nights annually.
The funding will allow the CVB to grow beyond the Brick City Development Corp., where it began in 2008 as an incubator program. It will now establish a new 1,900-square-foot visitor center along Newark's Military Park, which is now being renovated by the same planners who transformed Manhattan's Bryant Park in the 1990s.
The organization hopes to open the ground-floor space in March and use it as a guidepost for visitors, Davidson said, complementing its recently launched “Newark Happening” website and an interactive kiosk at Newark Penn Station.
“The whole management of a destination is really a challenge,” he said. “But I think we've made some good initial strides in what we're trying to do.”
With the infrastructure falling into place, stakeholders must tackle what is perhaps an even bigger obstacle: Newark's reputation. Experts say it's a perception problem fueled by people who have not visited the city in decades and the belief that violence in some of its outer wards is widespread.
“It's an easy narrative for people because many speak about Newark without spending any time in the city,” said Peter Harvey, New Jersey's attorney general from 2003 to 2006, now a New York-based attorney. “But the more time one spends in Newark's venues … you begin to realize it's not an unsafe city.”
The problem is mostly perception, Harvey said, “as Newark is a considerably safe city given it size.” He pointed to other cities such as Philadelphia and New Orleans, as each “has a very serious gun violence problem, but it's not reported the same way as Newark.”
But the city has a better opportunity to change that today than in past years.
“In today's world of open media, Newark certainly has the ability to control its own narrative,” Harvey said.
Another key to changing that perception is simply bringing more people to the city, so the CVB and its hotel partners are now going directly to tour bus operators. Davidson said the group is targeting motor coach trade groups across the country — and even in Canada — dangling cheaper hotel rates just a few miles outside Manhattan.
If that strategy works, he said, the next step is working with the tour operators and convincing those Newark hotel guests to spend some time in the city — whether it's for lunch in the Ironbound or a concert at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center — in addition to their Broadway shows.
“The hotels believe there's a chance for growth there,” Davison said, noting the motor coach industry is “low-hanging fruit for us.”
The work of the CVB is welcome news to the operators of Newark's tourism assets. John Schreiber, NJPAC's chief executive, said the city has been without the “professionally funded infrastructure … to promote tourism and to be thoughtful about how to attract visitors on a consistent basis.”
But he expects the new focus to “make a real positive difference” at a time of momentum for the city. Newark is anchored by venues such as NJPAC, the Prudential Center and the Newark Museum, but he also pointed to developments such as a growing artist community and the revitalization of Military Park.
“All of these things will combine, I think, as they haven't before to make Newark a more attractive destination for tourists,” Schreiber said. “So it's a good time to have a CVB in place that can take advantages of that.”
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