#36. Karen Fashana
It’s no big secret that Buffalo is having (what’s being referred to as) a renaissance. It’s easy to see, hear and read about. Well, that isn’t happening just because it’s happening. It is happening for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons is because there are people dedicated to and passionate about promoting and sharing Buffalo’s story to the region, and to the rest of the world. There are people in our community who have made it their mission, and their job to help Buffalo grow, and to spread the news of what’s happening here so that more people know about it, and more people come to visit us. One of those people is Karen Fashana, the Director of Marketing at Visit Buffalo Niagara. I have the pleasure of sitting down with her recently to talk about her role at Visit Buffalo Niagara, and we would like to thank her and her team for the work that they are doing to bring more people, and business to Buffalo.
A little about Karen
“I was born and raised in Williamsville. Went to Williamsville East High School, played basketball and volleyball there. Fast forward however many years and now I’m married to Charlie and have two kids – Ray is two and AJ is one. We’ve been living in North Buffalo for 5 years.”
“I got my undergrad from Niagara University and my Masters from Canisius. When I was thinking about where I was going to go to college – which I think is extremely strange that you have to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life when you’re 16 years old – I was just basing it off of my past or what was happening to me at that moment. I remember I was about to take drivers ed and I had broken my ankle and was getting physical therapy at the time. I was thinking, ‘Oh, people do this for a living, that seems kinda cool. Maybe I should go into physical therapy.’ I looked into a couple of schools that were offering that. But then I also thought about how my family grew up traveling across the country… a lot. We would hop in the car and go to Florida. We’d take a train to Colorado. We’d fly out to see the Grand Canyon, or go to Maine. We were all over the place. I loved everything about travel. The feelings that you get when you’re planning a trip. The family bonding that’s associated with it. I like exploring new things, as well as the adventure of seeing new destinations. I think I appreciated it back then… like looking out over the Grand Canyon, and what that meant. It was so different from what I called home. I was always that kid that was packing my suitcase a week before we were going anywhere (and then I’d be taking things out because I needed to wear that pair of jeans that week.) We were happy when we were traveling. It made for good memories. I think that when I figured out that you could major in tourism or travel, I thought… hmm, that could be fun. Niagara had a program at the time. I also applied to Canisius, UB and Buff State. And then I applied to Michigan State, not that I had plans to go there. I just wanted to make sure that I could get into a big name school. Ultimately, after taking the tour at Niagara I landed happily there.”
How did you get started with Visit Buffalo Niagara
“Everyone was asking me what I was going to do and I didn’t really have a good answer. At the time, travel agencies were really big, but I knew that wasn’t the direction I was going to go in. Niagara had a requirement that you had to do 800 hours in the field that you chose to study in. Like work in hotels or restaurants. I think internships can be good for knowing what you want to do and for knowing what you DON’T want to do in life. Restaurants and hotels weren’t for me. I picked up the phone, and at the time this organization was called the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau, I asked if they offered internships and they said yes. I was an intern in the convention services department for a semester. After I graduated, a couple months had passed and they called me back because they needed an assistant manager at the visitors center that was opening at the Walden Galleria. That’s when I started my career at Visit Buffalo Niagara. I’ve had my full tenure, since graduation at one place. Some people find that strange. People usually jump around, whether it be by their own choosing or not. I guess I’m sorta unique in that case.“
“I went back to school to get my masters degree. I was always passionate about marketing, and decided to get my MBA with a concentration in marketing that could expand my options. I really loved my experience at Canisius. What a difference between getting a masters degree and an undergrad degree when you have experience to work off of. I think that helped me grow up a little bit more. I was morphing more into a marketing role here, so it timed out well. I’ve been with VBN for 15 years now. It’s the work that we do here, day-in and day-out that’s keeping me here. In fact, the average tenure of all of our employees is 15 years! It doesn’t feel like work. But you can’t take for granted loving what you do every day. Promoting the city that you love for a living is an honor. It really is.”
“It wasn’t an easy job back then, especially on the sales side of our business. Visit Buffalo Niagara has a team of people that go after meetings, conventions, and amateur athletic events. It was a tough sell back then. To even get people to answer the phone and not laugh in your face. We were desperately trying to tell our story to them. And when you are just talking over the phone, it’s hard. What worked best for us then, and it still works for us now is getting people to come here and give it a try. We did (and do!) a lot of what we call Fam Tours – familiarization tours. We bring people into town and show them all the highlights of Buffalo. Take them to the best restaurants, have them meet with other influential people in the community and really wow them with all the great things happening. They’d leave here surprised, even back then. But now, that job is much easier. Our Marketing Department is truly excelling at getting the media’s interest in Buffalo. We used to be more niche focused in our media efforts, concentrating on reaching arts & culture based publications. But now, the focus has become Buffalo as an overall tourism destination. We’re talking to the likes of Travel and Leisure and Afar Magazine. We want to get on Conde Nast’s radar. The Boston Globe is coming next month. It’s such an exciting time to do what we do and live in this community. ”
What challenges do you see Buffalo facing right now?
“We still have old stereotypes to get past. We still get calls in the visitor center asking if it snows here in July. We are a rustbelt city and people will associate what they will with that title. They still think we’re the Buffalo from the 70’s. Our message hasn’t infiltrated every nook and cranny of the world just yet, but that’s the goal.”
“All of these projects are coming online now. The restoration of the Martin House is nearing completion. Canalside is booming. Explore & More Children’s Museum is coming to the waterfront in 2018. Hotel Henry and the Buffalo Architecture Center. The list is impressive. The challenge is that all of this is coming, but marketing dollars are needed to tell those stories to the world. Our cultural organizations don’t have huge marketing budgets to go along with the projects. It’s not so much “If you build it, they will come”. You have to tell them that it’s here. Like so many small businesses, Visit Buffalo Niagara also struggles to come up with those marketing dollars. We use our channels such as our blog, social media, e-newsletters and media relations to get the message out there in an affordable way and I think we’re doing it well. But we would love to have the money for full page ads in the glossy magazines or get more creative in the digital space. We just aren’t there yet. Hopefully soon.”
How do you get your funding?
“We are indirectly funded by the Erie County Bed Tax. So anytime someone stays in a hotel room in Erie County, there’s an additional percentage tacked onto the cost of that room. It’s meant to be a visitor tax. The money is then put into the County’s general fund and they issue us a grant every year. With so much to promote in Buffalo these days and so many exciting stories to tell, we’re optimistic to see a funding increase in future years.”
Anything that you’re excited about?
“I volunteer at the Martin House, so seeing that renovation come to completion after 15 years and $50 million is something that everybody should be excited about. My parents would take us to other Frank Lloyd Wright houses when we traveled. I fell in love with that style of architecture. Canalside is so inviting and accessible for locals and visitors to come and experience the waterfront. The work that they have done there is fabulous. In my opinion, the waterfront puts us on the map as a true destination. It’s not just about standing on the boardwalk looking out. You can get on the water, get on a boat, do yoga on a standup paddleboard. Canalside is such a treasure, and in my opinion, the catalyst for a lot of the good stuff that is happening around here. Charlie and I have young kids and we could not be more ecstatic about Explore & More moving down to Canalside in 2018. That’s a game-changer for Buffalo, and for our family. Having something of that scale devoted to children on the waterfront is great for everyone. I think it will help bring families downtown that maybe don’t stray from the comforts of their suburbs, but maybe even more importantly, is that it should help children from the city get the long overdue access they need to such a place. And finally, on a completely unrelated note, I love beer, so the more craft breweries that keep popping up around town is another reason to celebrate.”
What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
“Since I’ve seen all of these interviews, I went back and was reading through them again. I noticed that a lot people mention taking risks. I do agree with that. But I feel that when you say “take risks” it implies something happening on a grand scale. Like you were going to school to be a doctor, you’re not happy and you take the risk to completely change your career path to become a teacher. Or you call up the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and ask for a job. The risks of that magnitude aren’t for everyone so what I would tell my younger self is to bring that risk down a notch and “just say yes, give it a try”. About 5 years ago, an old professor of mine at NU called me up and asked if I wanted to teach a digital marketing course. Before I could talk myself out of it, I said “Sure! I’ll give it a try.” By no means was teaching a class a life-altering “risk”, but for me, it was something new to try, so I tried it. I’m sure there are other things I should’ve said “yes” to in the past…so, I would just say: “Say yes to those opportunities”. See what comes of it, if it doesn’t work out, no regrets.”
- Erin Habes – consultant for VBN
- Ali Eagen – made by anatomy
- Tom Muraca – Katz Americas
- Charlie Riley – Lawley Insurance