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Publish Date: 
Monday, July 7, 2014
The New York Times

Fred Dixon is not replacing Neil Patrick Harris in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” on Broadway, but he still has one of the hardest acts to follow in New York City.

After the city attracted a record number of visitors for the fourth straight year in 2013, Mr. Dixon was promoted to run NYC & Company, the city’s tourism marketing agency. Now he has to figure out how to keep stoking what has been a primary engine of the city’s recovery from the financial crisis.

The tourism boom, and the spending and tax revenue that come with it, was one of the biggest successes of the administration of former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Mr. Bloomberg took control of NYC & Company, installed George A. Fertitta as its chief executive, and laid out one audacious goal after another.

In 2006, Mr. Bloomberg set a target of 50 million annual visitors by 2015, an increase of 6 million, or nearly 15 percent. That goal was reached four years ahead of schedule, so Mr. Bloomberg raised it to 55 million. He set another goal of having tourism’s impact on the city’s economy — a more complicated gauge — rise to $70 billion annually by 2015.

Tania Williams captured her double-decker bus experience with her daughter, Jenai Levi, 16, near Times Square on Sunday. Credit James Estrin/The New York Times
Mr. Dixon is off to a promising start: He told the executive committee of NYC & Company last week that the latest projection is for 55.8 million visitors this year, an increase of 1.5 million from 2013.

But he had some less cheerful news: Those visitors were not shopping, dining and entertaining themselves as prodigiously as hoped. Their spending this year is now expected to rise about 7 percent, to $41.3 billion.

“While they’re still traveling, everyone’s pocketbook is a little strained,” Mr. Dixon said in an interview. “They’re just spending a little bit less.”

NYC & Company estimates that each dollar a visitor spends translates into about $1.50 in economic activity, with that money changing hands repeatedly from merchant to employee to shopkeeper and so on. The agency’s current estimate for tourism’s economic impact this year is $61.1 billion, almost $9 billion shy of the goal for next year.

To close that gap will require attracting even more overseas travelers, who tend to stay in hotels longer and shop more. Australia, Brazil and China have been sources of abundance, sending more tourists to the city in the last few years than Germany or Italy have. The 11.9 million international visitors expected this year would account for more than one-fifth of the total, according to NYC & Company.

Native New Yorkers may enjoy complaining about out-of-towners clogging the sidewalks and hogging restaurant tables, but Mr. Dixon, a transplant himself, argues that the city will benefit from plenty more tourists. The leisure and hospitality sector of the economy, led by restaurants and bars, has added jobs at a faster pace than any other since the recession, statistics from the federal Department of Labor show.

“Our city would not be as robust and vibrant as it is if it were not for the infusion of cash” from visitors, Mr. Dixon said. And that cash is spreading farther and farther from Times Square these days because, he said, tourists are “exploring every corner of our city.”

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The ripple effect is clear from the list of hotels that have recently opened or will open soon in places like Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Long Island City in Queens and the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx. Before the end of the year, the number of hotel rooms in the city is expected to surpass 100,000 for the first time, up more than 30,000 since 2006.

Despite all the construction, hotel operators have managed to keep filling their rooms at higher prices. The average rate paid for a hotel room in the city so far this year has been $266 a night, up more than 2 percent from the first five months of 2013, according to NYC & Company.

That gain has come despite the proliferation of unregulated lodging services, such as Airbnb, that visitors use to find less expensive or less commercial accommodations. Mayor Bill de Blasio has voiced concerns about Airbnb, which the hotel industry fiercely opposes. But Mr. Dixon reserved judgment. If the service is deemed legal and can be properly regulated, he said, it could help fulfill the growing demand for “experiential travel.”

“People want to live like a local and experience neighborhoods like a local,” Mr. Dixon said. That is why NYC & Company has devoted substantial resources to promoting areas far from the bright lights, including Tompkinsville on Staten Island and the Gowanus section of Brooklyn.

That effort is a favorite of Mr. de Blasio, who announced in mid-March that Mr. Dixon would fill the void left by Mr. Fertitta’s departure last year. “You know when I see the tour buses go through Brooklyn, it gives me a thrill,” Mr. de Blasio said then.

Mr. Dixon, 44, has been with NYC & Company for nearly a decade, but he faced some competition for the top job. Marty Markowitz, the former Brooklyn borough president, was briefly considered, but he accepted a role as the agency’s chief promoter of the boroughs outside of Manhattan.

Among the 60 members of the board of NYC & Company, which receives much of its funding from hotels, restaurants and attractions, the support for Mr. Dixon to ascend was practically unanimous, said Emily K. Rafferty, the chairwoman of the board and president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“He’s been boots-on-the-ground in terms of developing our presence in 18 countries,” Ms. Rafferty said, referring to the network of offices the agency has set up around the globe. “He has this very unique personal style of engaging people and also managing the situation.”

On a steamy July day, Mr. Dixon appeared utterly unruffled by the challenge of luring millions of additional visitors to the city. “I’ve never seen Fred sweat,” said Cristyne Nicholas, who hired Mr. Dixon when she ran NYC & Company. “He’s a rock star.”

Mr. Dixon has come a long way from his boyhood chore of cleaning the pool at the Gillette Motel in Gatlinburg, Tenn., which his family owns and his 65-year-old mother still manages. Last week, Mr. Dixon said he was preparing to dash down to Gatlinburg to spend the holiday weekend with his family, and he launched right into a rhapsody about the charms of the Smoky Mountains.

“Hospitality is literally in my blood,” he said.