Local entrepreneurs and Niagara University students learn creative problem solving in TReC's Quaker Room, where a billboard painted in the 1900s was restored during the facility's reconstruction.

The building at 616 Niagara St., the home of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute, retains traces of its entrepreneurial history. A swath of tile flooring that once marked the doorway of one of Niagara Falls’ first grocery stores; the brick walls of the three, century-old buildings that housed plumbing, retail, and bakery businesses; and an original Quaker Oats billboard ad painted in the 1900s by Thomas Cusack, a pioneer in the field of outdoor advertising, were all retained during the reconstruction of the three-story, 33,700 sq. ft. structure at the corner of 7th and Niagara streets in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

It’s the ideal location for the NGTI, a Niagara University-led initiative to transform the regional tourism industry through entrepreneurship. Established in 2014 and led by Pat Whalen, an active member of the WNY entrepreneurial community, and Roscoe Naguit, a 2008 graduate of NU’s College of Business, the NGTI partners with stakeholders in finding ways to improve tourism in the region and enhance global competitiveness.

“Our mission wasn’t to walk around with a bag of solutions looking for problems to solve,” Naguit explained. “Our goal was to work with community members to identify problems and work collectively to help systematically develop solutions.”

The NGTI’s four pillars—research, technology, workforce development, and entrepreneurship— were given context with community input. Collaborative partnerships between the public and private sector are facilitating programs and initiatives that address the identified needs, which include reliable data to inform strategic decision making; a skilled workforce; and new technologies to support destination development, marketing, and visitor servicing.

The NGTI also provides unparalleled opportunities for Niagara University students to learn from professionals in a variety of industries, and is serving as a catalyst to better the lives of residents of the City of Niagara Falls through its collaborations with the university’s Levesque Institute for Civic Engagement and other stakeholders in community outreach and workforce development projects. These initiatives are tangible evidence of Niagara University’s investment in the Niagara Falls community.

In the years since it was launched, NGTI has made considerable strides in all four of its focus areas.

Research

In 2021, the NGTI released the results of a tourism study identifying the challenges and opportunities facing the City of Niagara Falls. “World-Class Destination: Envisioning Growth and Prosperity in Niagara Falls, USA” was sponsored by a number of area stakeholders and prepared with the research assistance of faculty and students from Niagara University’s colleges of Hospitality, Sport and Tourism Management and Business Administration. Based on interviews with visitors, community members, and city leaders, the report recommended that new, year-round attractions and activities be developed and offered several ideas to guide the development of a master vision for how the City of Niagara Falls and the region could leverage tourism to grow the local economy, improve the lives of residents, and revive the community. It also established a new baseline for conversations and engagement, employing a more inclusive, focused approach toward the future of Niagara Falls.

“This carefully researched report outlines important elements critical to the evolution of the City of Niagara Falls as a year-round destination,” said City of Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino. “The concentration on the economic development aspects of the tourism core complements the focus of our administration on fighting poverty, increasing community pride, and providing entertainment and attractions for local residents and tourists. This report is an excellent blueprint for the future of Niagara Falls.”

Technology

To support destination development and marketing and to enhance the visitor experience, the NGTI utilizes and advocates new and emerging technologies. One of its most successful initiatives in this area is “Niagara Wi-Fi,” a collaborative effort of the NGTI, Niagara University, the New York Power Authority, the City of Niagara Falls, and Destination Niagara USA, to offer tourists complimentary wireless internet access throughout the downtown corridor of Niagara Falls, N.Y.

“Internet connectivity is of paramount importance to our tourism industry’s continued growth and viability,” said Whalen. “Western New York has so much to offer visitors in terms of outstanding restaurants, shops, and attractions, so when we put this information literally at their fingertips, it vastly increases the likelihood that they’ll extend their stays, which contributes to the economic revitalization of Niagara Falls and all of Niagara County.”

In addition to providing free internet connectivity for the more than 8 million tourists who visit Niagara Falls each year, the project also collects information from them by requiring users to complete a survey to log onto the network. Questions solicit answers that provide demographic information about who is visiting the area and critiques on how businesses in the area’s hospitality industry are serving their customers. This critical data is being used to guide tourism and economic development decisions and improve industry competitiveness.

Naguit is also working with a group of Niagara University students to build a database and customer portal that will support and enhance the WiFi network, providing another opportunity for students to gain valuable experience in their chosen fields before graduation.

Workforce Development

Perhaps the initiatives that have had the most immediate impact are those offered under the workforce development pillar. Working with stakeholders, the NGTI is identifying career pathways and designing education programs to develop a competent workforce for entry-level jobs and create opportunities for professional advancement. These programs have benefited members of the local community, the hospitality industry, local and regional businesses, and Niagara University students.

The cornerstone of this pillar is the Tourism Career Pathways Program for members of the local community interested in working in the tourism/hospitality industry. Since it began in 2015, the program has evolved from an initial three-student cohort with four industry partners to a 15-student offering supported by more than 30 partner stakeholders.  

The program is specifically tailored to meet the needs of local business owners. Participants develop skills through on-site experiences and workshops which address the abilities needed both on the job and in their personal lives. The program also offers assistance in areas that often are barriers to employment, such as lack of transportation or proper work clothes. After completion of the four-week workshop, participants are guaranteed an entry-level job in the hospitality and tourism industry.

“Hospitality and tourism provide a perfect opportunity to get a foot in the door to a career without the need for a college degree,” said Naguit. “The industry provides a lot of opportunity for folks, who can transfer their skills to other industries, as well.” He adds that the program also aims “to get participants to the point of self-sufficiency, not just getting a job.”

In addition to the pathways program, the NGTI has hosted the Disney Institute since 2016. Each year, the professional development program attracts hundreds of individuals working in a variety of industries and provides an opportunity to showcase the City of Niagara Falls. It also offers students in Niagara University’s College of Hospitality, Sport and Tourism Management internships in event planning and management. 

One of the newest initiatives under this pillar is the “Stay Another Night” program. This partnership between area hotels and industry partners works to improve tourism activity in the winter months. SAN offers front-desk hotel associates tips and techniques to encourage existing guests to extend their stay, such as two-for-one tickets to area attractions. Monthly incentives are offered to associates who participate in the program, which has increased visitors’ stays by nearly 250 nights during the off-season between November and April.

Entrepreneurship

In November 2019, the NGTI cut the ribbon on its new TReC (Tourism Research & Entrepreneurship Center) co-working and business incubator.

TReC fosters a collaborative atmosphere in its open work environment, and private offices and meeting areas are available to members and local organizations. Programming includes the Monday morning Niagara Open Coffee Club, a networking forum that offers attendees a chance to come together to share ideas, offer support, and ask for assistance; and the Niagara Falls Entrepreneurship Meetup Group, which connects experienced entrepreneurs with aspiring ones each month to share tips and resources to help one another create or grow a new business. One-day workshops and seminars on specific topics relating to tourism and business growth, such as creative problem solving, are also offered. All these programs are available to Niagara University students, giving them opportunities to converse with a diverse group of entrepreneurs and often leading to internships and job offers. One NU graduate was even able to launch her own business in downtown Niagara Falls after making valuable connections during the Open Coffee Club.  

Underlying this work is the university’s Vincentian mission. The NGTI is impacting the community around it both through its location in an underserved area of the city, as well as through a variety of efforts to improve the quality of life for all city residents and to create a future for its young people.

For example, artwork created by students in Community Missions’ Niagara Visions PROS (Personalized Recovery Oriented Services) program is on display and available for purchase. A partnership with the Niagara Falls School District and the Field and Fork Network enables high school seniors to build professional skills while exploring the diverse career and advancement opportunities that are available within food system, from growing and harvesting to food prep and disposal. Leadership Niagara rents office space and holds its Leadership for the Youth of Niagara Communities high school program meetings at TReC. And Naguit is working to rebuild the more than 100-year-old Niagara Falls Rotary Club.

“We’re connecting the community, industry, and students,” Naguit said. “The university is an anchor institution of this region, and we’re the off-campus arm that is linking everything together.”

For more information on the NGTI and TReC, visit https://ngtinstitute.org/ and https://trecbyngti.com/.

 

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