How New York City’s marketing organization is putting the shine back in the Big Apple

NYC & Company CEO Fred Dixon on what’s on tap for tourism in New York City

In New York City, tourism and retail go hand-in-hand: Neither could survive without the other. With the pandemic’s full impact still uncertain, NYC & Company, the Big Apple’s marketing arm, is working to let the world know New York City is back. NRF spoke with Fred Dixon, CEO of NYC & Company, about just how bad things got during the early pandemic, how things are now and what’s on tap for New York tourism — and its huge imprint on retail — in 2022.

What is the direct link between New York City tourism and New York City retail sales?

New York City is the capital of shopping for the world. Everyone knows that New York City is famous for retail. People come here to shop. In fact, shopping is the No. 1 activity that shows up in our research on visitors. Shopping is at the top of virtually everyone’s list. Shopping is part and parcel of the New York City visit and New York City experience.

Fred Dixon
Fred Dixon, CEO, NYC & Company

Of course, many visitors also come to town for conventions, too.

New York is the place for thought leadership. There is no better venue than New York to bring together thought leaders in retail, fashion, arts, commerce and business. This is an important intersection. I can’t think of another city in the country that would be as appropriate for this dialogue. New York is the home of so many things: big brands, fashion industry designers and the media. None of this is lost on us.

How concerned are you that the omicron variant will jeopardize the recovery of New York’s tourism industry — and all the retail spending that comes with it?

Of course, this is all over the news and on everyone’s minds. But it’s just too soon to know. It’s too fluid a situation. We do have one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. We’re in as good a shape as we can be under the circumstances. At this point, we have not seen any immediate impact or cancellations of substance from the new variant.

What did NYC & Company do in 2021 to encourage tourism?

We are fortunate to have received federal stimulus funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Some $30 million was made available to us in federal stimulus money. We used some of it to create and broadcast the “It’s Time for NYC” campaign. (The advertising campaign features TV commercials that show images of the city back in full swing.) The campaign started regionally in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Then it expanded nationally. We spent almost two-thirds of the money getting the message out domestically. But the watershed moment was Nov. 8, when the international travel ban was lifted. To celebrate, we lit up the Empire State Building in Union Jack colors to celebrate the return of flights from the U.K.

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What will you do in 2022?

We plan to continue the campaign into the first part of 2022. Next year, our campaign also will expand into other foreign markets.  We’re taking it one quarter at a time because it’s such a changing landscape.

What does the data show about how New York City tourism was impacted by the pandemic?

Our primary objective is to bring back visitors and spending in the five boroughs. In order to spend, people have to be able to travel. In 2019, our visitors reached a 10-year record high since the economic downtown of 66.6 million. That fell to 22.3 million in 2020. For 2021, we’re expecting 34.6 million visitors to the city this year with a recovering domestic market. Barring setbacks from omicron, we expect in 2022 we’ll see a significant recovery back to 57.9 million.

With international travelers returning to New York City, can you give context to their importance?

You hear us talk a lot about their importance. New York City is the No. 1 port of entry in the United States and the No. 1 city-of-destination. The typical international traveler spends four times what the domestic traveler spends. They represent half of all spending and half of all hotel nights despite being only 20 percent of the volume. That’s because they stay longer and spend more. Most of them are coming to shop and to take in the arts and culture. So, they are strategically our top priority.

How hard did New York City’s hotels get hit during the pandemic?

In 2019, our hotels sold 39 million room nights at an average rate of $285. In 2020, that fell to about 12 million room nights at an average rate of $146.  We do not have projections available for 2022.

Madison Avenue
Madison Avenue in New York City

Retailers tend to care most about foot traffic. Do you have data on that?

Yes, foot traffic is a huge indicator. The Times Square Alliance numbers are showing an uptick. And we hear anecdotally about more people in the stores. It’s wonderful to see the trend heading up in public places like Times Square and among retailers. That’s because there are more people in the city.

What’s the impact on newer retail operations like Hudson Yards and The Oculus?

These places are all game changers for their communities. The Javits Center was somewhat isolated, but now you have this enormous office and retail center, Hudson Yards, that enhances the West Side as a destination and supports the Javits Center. Javits just completed a $1.5 billion expansion with new conference space. Both Hudson Yards and The Oculus have proven to be significant magnets for consumers, but like every other retailer, they were hit hard during the pandemic.

What about convention bookings for 2022?

As you know, the Javits Center was converted into a vaccination center and a hospital at one point. But now we’re seeing a strong return to conferences and trade shows. The center’s calendar is incredibly full for 2022.

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What is NYC & Company doing with retailers to entice visitors and shoppers?

We’re partnering with large department stores including Macy’s, Saks, Nordstrom and Bloomingdales for shopping promotions. When shoppers spend, they receive special added value at the stores.

Do you see retail coming back in New York City?

Yes. It’s been nice to see the new retail openings like the new Manolo Blahnik high-end luxury shoe store that just opened a flagship store on Madison Avenue. At this time of year, the holiday windows are the best I’ve ever seen them.

When will things be “normal” again in New York City?

That’s hard to say. We’re certainly encouraged by the return of hotel demand and advance bookings. It’s too soon to tell but we are bullish about the continued recovery of New York City as a destination. Right now, it looks like it will be a two- or three-year time frame until we are back to 2019 levels. We’re doing everything we can to accelerate that.

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