With NYC & Company, exploring boroughs beyond Manhattan

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Queens globeNEW YORK -- Mention Flushing Meadows Corona Park, and you may be greeted with a shrug.

But broken down into its various parts, this park in New York's Queens borough becomes familiar -- and a popular destination, particularly for visiting baseball and tennis fans. Plus, history buffs know it as the site of two World's Fairs (1939-1940 and 1964-1965).

At one and a half times the size of New York's Central Park, it encompasses the Mets' new home, Citi Field, and hosts the U.S. Open Tennis Championships in the world's largest public tennis complex.

The park also is home to several cultural institutions, ones that are largely overshadowed by those in Manhattan, much as Queens and the other boroughs themselves are overshadowed by Manhattan.

However, each of the boroughs has its own history and points of interest for visitors, and they are sizeable places. If New York's boroughs were split into five cities, Queens would be the fourth-largest in the U.S., and Brooklyn would be the third-largest.

Seeing the potential to attract visitors with the widest possible selection of attractions and activities and to spread tourism's benefits around, NYC & Company makes it a point, when hosting overseas press groups, to bring each group to at least one, and preferably two, boroughs besides Manhattan.

And that's how I, a Manhattan resident, came to be a tourist in Queens: I accompanied a press group from Northern Ireland. It was only my second visit to Flushing Meadows Corona Park; the first was for the World's Fair in 1965, when I was a very young tourist from the Midwest.

The center of our visit was the Queens Museum of Art, which was built as the New York State Building for the first of the World's Fairs and which housed the United Nations from 1946 to 1950 while the fledgling organization built its Manhattan headquarters.

This museum accommodates the world's largest scale architectural model: a 9,335-square-foot model of New York City, which was created for the second World's Fair. Because updating the model is such a huge task, it currently provides a 1992 rendition of the city, with the World Trade Center towers intact; no date has been set for the next update.

The museum is across from the iconic Unisphere, also built for the 1964-1965 World's Fair.

Our park visit included a private tour of Citi Field, which debuted last spring. Mets fans now have the modern amenities they felt were lacking next door at Shea Stadium, which had been the team's home since 1964. Citi Field's airy entry, the Jackie Robinson rotunda, sets the tone. Our visit revealed an avid baseball fan (who wore a baseball jersey for the visit) among the Irish visitors.

The park -- and hence, the ballpark, tennis courts, the park's cultural establishments, its lakes and recreational options -- is accessible on the subway directly from Grand Central Station in Manhattan, which is how the press group traveled in the city, to emphasize the accessibility of the boroughs.

Hosting international visitors

Foreign visitors accounted for 19% of New York's arrivals in 2008. In this recession year, the city expects a 5% decline in total arrivals and a steeper decline internationally, said Chris Heywood, vice president of travel and tourism public relations for NYC & Company. Nevertheless, given that foreign arrivals accounted for at least half of all visitor spending in the city in 2008, those markets remain vital.

Heywood said NYC & Company sponsors about 25 overseas groups annually, averaging six journalists each. (The company hosts domestic press on an individual basis, but not in groups.)

CitiField MetsHeywood said each of its 18 foreign representative offices is obliged to send at least one group a year, and this activity has stepped up recently, given that 11 of NYC & Company's offices were opened in the last two years.

For its efforts, NYC & Company expects to generate "earned media coverage," specifically stories that will motivate audiences to visit, Heywood said. "We don't have a huge marketing budget to advertise, so these trips are important in terms of showcasing new product to journalists and highlighting areas that they may not know about in New York."

In the current economy, he said, NYC & Company favors journalists whose media can turn a story around within two or three months.

He said visiting press are expected to follow the planned itinerary and use free time for independent activities.

Noting that NYC & Company represents all of New York, it has an obligation to promote the five boroughs, Heywood said, not just Manhattan. Besides, he said, some of the most interesting and authentic experiences may be found away from the typical and sometimes-crowded tourist haunts.

Aside from showing off traditional sites or the newest attractions, hosted press trips aim to introduce the "authentic New York," to emphasize its affordability and safety, as well as to highlight the 24/7 transportation system.

All press trips are hosted by industry suppliers even including the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for Metrocards, Heywood said, so that no tax dollars are spent. His office seeks assistance from the borough offices, which they willingly provide, and sometimes tours include sightseeing with a volunteer Big Apple Greeter for a view of unique neighborhoods "through the lens of a New Yorker."

The multiborough itineraries serve the journalists, too, Heywood said, because many look for new things to write about.

Trips are customized for each market, Heywood said. For the Chinese, who are new to New York as leisure travelers, the emphasis remains on traditional sightseeing attractions.

At the other extreme, NYC & Company finds many European visitors are "more intrepid," Heywood said, because so many are not first-time visitors.

A Belgian press group gets the prize for the most ground covered; last November, the group visited all five boroughs. In another first, a group from Scandinavia was set to be accommodated this month outside Manhattan, staying at the Holiday Inn Manhattan View in Queens; that's two subway stops from Bloomingdale's on Manhattan's East Side, Heywood noted.

Because New York comprises a melange of nationalities, points of interest may also be selected that match potential interests of each market, although, as Heywood said, while Italians may be interested in the role of Italians in the city's history, "they don't want to eat in Italian restaurants."

The tour for Northern Ireland journalists included the "Titanic the Artifact Exhibition" in Times Square to "discover how the Belfast-built ship met its fate," according to the printed itinerary.

Our group also frequently heard references to New York-Irish connections. Those connections are many and often personal, but nowadays, said John Donohue, whose Dublin firm represents NYC & Company in Ireland, more than 80% of Irish visitors to New York stay in hotels, and only a minority stay with family and friends. He added that "with the Irish threads and with people mentioning personal Irish connections, Irish visitors feel very welcome here."

In fact, the city benefits from preconceived notions. Richard Sullivan, news editor of the Sunday World in Belfast, said, for his readers, "New York is iconic, an aspirational destination. People want to visit because they see it in the movies and on TV. It is a place apart; people don't think of this as a visit to the U.S. but a visit to New York."

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