Tourism is New York State’s third largest industry and New York’s museums are significant partners. In 2018, museums helped contribute to the state's 253 million visitors and $114.8 million total tourism economic impact. The New York State Division of Tourism / I LOVE NY helps to promote museums by, creating dynamic marketing campaigns and offerings, funding to local and regional partners through programs like Market New York, which has helped museums bring in special exhibitions and events and fund capital projects. Earlier this month, I spoke to Ross Levi, Executive Director of the New York State Division of Tourism, about his role at I LOVE NY, how museums are important to New York State's tourism industry, and tried to confirm his favorite museum. “We [I LOVE NY] see [the relationship between tourism and museums] as a very reciprocal relationship and we want to be able to help museums so that museums are able to help tourism,” he said.
(left) Ross Levi, Executive Director of the New York State Division of Tourism/I LOVE NY, photo courtesy I LOVE NY
Megan: What is your current title with I LOVE NY? How long have you been there?
Ross Levi: I am Executive Director of the New York State Division of Tourism, which is often referred to as I LOVE NY, and also a Vice President at Empire State Development (ESD). I’ve been with ESD since 2012 and worked initially in tourism and business marketing before migrating exclusively to tourism, where I've served as Executive Director since 2017.
Can you give me a brief overview of what you do in your work?
The New York State Division of Tourism promotes all of New York State as the premier travel destination, and we do that in a number of different ways. We promote New York State through marketing including paid advertising like TV commercials, PR and earned media efforts, digital and social media, and printed collateral. We also do domestic and international sales work like leading sales missions, participating in travel trade shows, and reaching out to tour operators. We also provide industry support by funding local and regional tourism initiatives, and we work on policy development to make New York State a more appealing destination to potential visitors.
At the end of the day my responsibility is to inspire travel to New York State by keeping it a top-of-mind destination for travelers when considering or planning a trip.
What motivates you to do what you do? What do you get excited about? What are some of your goals?
First of all, knowing that tourism is New York State third largest industry supporting one out of every 10 jobs in the State – I feel a responsibility to tourism as an economic driver. My aim is to promote the incredible diversity of all that New York State has to offer as a travel destination and also help foster public policies that continue to make New York State a highly desirable place to visit, while supporting our tourism industry partners. They are the ones who are out there spreading the word and at the end of the day, most responsible for delivering on the promise that we make to consumers.
Beyond that, I love to travel, and I’ve always loved to travel. The greatest times in my life were when I was on a trip somewhere and I really love that I can help other people make lifelong memories and experience the joy of travel. It’s pretty great that my job is to convince others to have fun, to recharge, to broaden their horizons, and it’s even better when the product is New York State—an amazingly diverse place as a vacation destination, and a place for which I have a strong passion.
How many museums do you think you’ve visited in New York State since you become Executive Director of I LOVE NY?
Wow—at least dozens, but most likely scores. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I have always loved museums. As a kid, I grew up in Connecticut and visited the museums at Yale University; the Peabody Museum of Natural History, the University Art Gallery. I have always loved museums, and not just as an academic exercise but they were always fun for me. There were exciting, interesting places where you're exposed to things and worlds you didn’t know about. I still have a sense of wonder when I visit a museum that I have never been before, no matter the topic—whether its a fly-fishing museum in the Catskills or the It’s a Wonderful Life Museum in Seneca Falls. New York has such an amazing variety of museums that the sense of wonder is never ending.
You mentioned tourism being the third largest industry supporting New York State. Do you see museums supporting tourism and helping to drive economic development?
Oh yes, absolutely We know that nearly 80% of all U.S. leisure travelers engage in cultural or heritage activities such as visiting museums as part of their vacations, according to the U.S. Travel Association. So, we recognize that museums are a vital part of any tourism ecosystem and that is particularly true for a state like New York where we really have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to amazing museums, from the large world-famous destinations that everyone knows to the more niche institutions. We at I LOVE NY, along with the many other tourism promotion partners across the state that we work with, want our museum partners to thrive and we want them to help us help them.
How can museums in New York State better utilize I LOVE NY?
There are a lot of different ways but I'll highlight four:
One is to make sure that you are connected with your local Tourism Promotion Agent (TPA). Every county in New York State has a TPA that is officially assigned to overseeing and coordinating tourism for their area. They act as our front line folks who we go to whenever we have a new campaign. It is very important that museums are connected with their TPAs, so when we reach out to the TPAs, they are well informed about what’s going on in the museum world in their area. They are also the ones responsible to make sure attractions and museums are listed on the I LOVE NY website and mobile app.
Connect with your TPA to make sure you are on ILOVENY.COM and listed on the mobile app.
Two is to engage with our Path Through History initiative, either by becoming an official Path Through History attraction and/or by participating in a Path Through History Weekend. The Path Through History Weekend is a Tourism Heritage Initiative and a way that I LOVE NY can speak specifically to people who are interested in adding a heritage tourism element as part of their trip. One of its signature activities is the two Path Through History Weekends held each year: one in the spring and one in the fall. You don’t have to be a Path Through History attraction to hold an event and participate in a Path Through History Weekend.
Third, it’s great to keep us informed of your public relations efforts because we post press releases on the I LOVE NY website, giving you additional exposure to the journalists with whom we are connected..
Lastly, if it is appropriate, apply for Market New York funding through the Consolidated Funding Application (CFA). This program allows museums to apply for grant funding that supports capital projects, special events and exhibitions, and special marketing initiatives that get the word out about their institutions.
Can you tell me more about Market New York?
Market New York is a grant program that provides matching funds for tourism marketing projects, special events, and tourism facility capital improvements that will ultimate create economic development by increasing tourism throughout the state. More than $15 million awards were just announced as part of Round IX of the program [See our write up about 2019 REDC museum funding]. We hope there will be a Round X included in the next State Budget and, if so, that application process will open in the spring.
How did you end up at I LOVE NY? What led you to this job? What were you doing before?
I’ve had a very varied career. My first career out of college was in marketing in the film industry for studios like Universal Pictures, Miramax and 20th Century Fox. I then had a second career; I went to law school and was a lawyer and advocate that included a long stint at New YorkState’s LGBT advocacy organization. I was their Executive Director for a few years, and helped coordinate the effort to legalize same-sex marriage in New York State.
My first connection to Empire State Development and Tourism was to help launch Governor Cuomo’s LGBT initiative—a tourism project to make a specific invitation to the LGBT community. My overall background allowed me to go back to the future with marketing and led me here and to lead the Division of Tourism when my predecessor left in 2017.
Can describe a favorite day on the job?
In a way, it’s hard to say because there is no typical day at I LOVE NY, but I really enjoy interacting with and helping to support our tourism partners. That's probably one of my favorite parts of the job. We have such a talented and professional group of professionals working in New York’s tourism industrywhether those are destination marketers, or the people who run the attractions, colleagues at other state agencies, and the advocates at our state tourism trade groups. I am really grateful to get out in the field and to speak with and learn from our tourism partners, which includes participating in industry meetings like the MANY Conference or seeing the latest developments at a tourist destination. So, my favorite parts of the job are being out in New York State alongside my colleagues in the tourism industry.
We exist to help the tourism industry and that very much includes museums. We can help museums fulfill their missions by helping them attract a larger and more diverse group of visitors often at no cost to the museum. In turn, we know that when museums succeed, they help us meet our responsibility in making New York State the world’s ultimate vacation destination.
We see it as a very reciprocal relationship and we want to be able to help museums so that museums are able to help tourism.
I emphasize the importance of museums to tourism and we recognize that museums have missions and an important societal role beyond that. As a New Yorker, I am glad for that role, even though I need to focus on the tourism and economic development piece of it. One of the things that I feel satisfied about is that since I’ve been here there has been increased dialogue between the museum and tourism worlds. While we recognize that there is such a natural relationship there in helping each other succeed, we don’t necessarily speak the same language and that’s ok. There is so much cross over but there are independent pieces as well.
Further Reading / Resources
To learn how your museum can apply for Market NY visit https://esd.ny.gov/market-new-york-tourism-grant-program
To learn more about I LOVE NY visit https://www.iloveny.com/To find you Tourism Promotion Agency visit https://www.iloveny.com/articles/post/county-and-regional-tpa-list/