Outlook 2021: New head of Discover Schenectady looks to add events, expand appeal of current ones

Todd Garofano, new executive director of Discover Schenectady
Todd Garofano, new executive director of Discover Schenectady

Just over 32 years later and about one mile away from where he took his first college courses for a career in tourism and hospitality, Todd Garofano is helping lead the way toward the future for the county and the city as executive director of Discover Schenectady.

Garofano, who spent eight years as president of Discover Saratoga, began his new role in January. Following a nearly three-year hiatus as the executive director of a statewide trade group, the New York State Association of Salon and Spa Professionals, he returned to the tourism and marketing industry during an especially difficult time.

“COVID-19 has certainly crippled tourism and the many businesses within this space: hotels, restaurants, wedding venues, theaters, casinos and other attractions,” Garofano said.

However, calling it “a glimmer of good news,” he noted that Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that capacity restrictions for wedding venues will be eased a bit on March 15. And more recently, Cuomo announced reopening dates for indoor family entertainment centers and even outdoor amusement parks in March and April.

“That gives us hope that this same logic could and should be applied to other groups — meetings, conferences, social events — and a sign that occupancy restrictions at casinos, theaters and other indoor attractions could also be increased,” Garofano said. “We would still like to see restaurant hours for indoor dining increased as well.”

Still, Garofano said, his organization must be conscious of the environment in the transition toward a post-pandemic time frame.

“We have to continue to be vigilant in our messaging and in our actions,” he said, “that we convey to those wanting to start to travel again, for whatever purpose, that Schenectady County offers a safe and convenient option and has so much to offer anyone looking to Discover Schenectady.”

‘In my blood’

Garofano grew up in Troy, the son of a chef, and enrolled at Schenectady County Community College in 1988 after graduating from Lansingburgh High School. He said he knew what he wanted to do from an early age.

“I have hospitality and tourism in my blood,” he said. “While studying travel and tourism at SCCC, I was fortunate enough to be selected for the Walt Disney World College Program and did my externship at the resort in Orlando. It was an amazing experience and I am forever grateful to SCCC.

“That really launched my career where I rose through the ranks at the front desk at the Albany Hilton to sales and marketing positions at the Desmond Hotel, Amtrak, Carlson Hotels Worldwide and Hospitality Sales Force before becoming president at Discover Saratoga.”

Garofano, 52, also studied at Cornell University and Hudson Valley Community College. He and his wife, Holly, are longtime residents of Ballston Spa. Their adult son, Christopher, lives in Saratoga Springs.

Tourism has been the major economic force in Saratoga Springs since Gideon Putnam realized that fortunes could be made from the water coming out of the ground and opened his tavern and guesthouse in 1803.

With many forms of entertainment available — including illegal gaming — Saratoga Springs had become a famous resort destination for the rich and not-so-rich by the middle of the 18th century. When gambling laws were finally enforced after World War II and Americans’ vacation interests changed with increased use of automobiles, Saratoga Springs became a much quieter locale with a four-week thoroughbred racing season.

The rather sad joke for many years was that Saratoga rolled up its sidewalks as soon as the horses and horseplayers left town in late August, and went back to sleep until the next summer. In the 1960s, a community investment project provided the financing for a new Broadway hotel, which became the Holiday Inn. Then Saratoga Performing Arts Center opened in 1966.

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Around the same time, a new convention and tourism bureau, later renamed Discover Saratoga, was formed to develop the historic city into a year-round destination.

Garofano came on board in February 2010. While the internationally acclaimed racing meet remains hugely important to the economy of Saratoga County and the Capital Region, Saratoga Springs has increased its amusement menu, resulting in far wider appeal.

“We had a lot of success in Saratoga and at Discover Saratoga while I was president of that organization, so it’s hard to be proud of just one thing,” Garofano said. “But one of the things I am most proud of is the economic impact our organization had on Saratoga Springs and Saratoga County. We climbed from assisting 167 groups in 2010 to well over 600 in 2017, with an estimated economic impact of around $67 million. We did that by growing the meetings, events and group markets outside of racing season when it was most impactful.

“I’m really excited by the growth opportunity we have in Schenectady as well,” Garofano said.

Plenty of possibilities

Schenectady isn’t Saratoga, Garofano said, but there are plenty of appealing attractions that will benefit from promotion by Discover Schenectady.

“These are two very different markets but there is so much that has already happened in Schenectady, in terms of development, and so much more to come,” he said. “We are a small team of two right now, but I hope and expect that to grow relatively soon. We have the tools and resources in place to effectively market Schenectady County, and we have regional and statewide partners, I Love NY, for example, to help us do that as well.”

Garofano said he expected to return to the tourism industry at some point. He succeeded Becky Daniels, who was the new agency’s first executive director from May 2017 until June 2020.

“A few people gave me the heads-up that the position was open and asked if I would be interested,” Garofano said. “With everything that was happening in Schenectady, prepandemic and even going through the pandemic, there was just a lot of buzz, and I had a lot of interest. I was always destined to get back into the tourism side of the business, the tourism industry. This just kind of created a perfect opportunity.“

Schenectady County has plenty of assets to promote, Garofano said, that are the foundation for the Discover Schenectady message.

“Obviously, the big beacons certainly are Rivers Casino and Proctors,” he said. “Rivers is operating at 25 percent now and we want to get that higher. Proctors has yet to reopen. There are all the cultural and historical attractions: the Historical Society, the Stockade, the Mabee Farm. All the other museums and attractions as well. MiSci [the Museum of Science and Innovation] is so cool. The ViaPort Aquarium.”

Garofano said closings and restrictions from the pandemic have helped illuminate other strengths Schenectady County has to offer.

“What is really kind of happening now in the industry is those locations, those destinations that have outdoor attractions, places where people can get outside and experience things,” he said. “We have so many trails, for hiking and biking. We have all those opportunities that are popular right now.

“It’s really a nice variety of family-friendly, as well as for couples, adventure seekers, those types of attractions. So you’re not just focusing in on one thing.”

Like many other industrial cities in America’s Rust Belt, Schenectady suffered when its major employers closed, moved or downsized. Garofano said that while a lot of people may know that Schenectady has been revitalized and is appealing to visitors, it’s important to continue to spread the message.

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

“You always have to be telling the story,” he said. “You always have to have that positive story to tell and be able to tell it.”

Garofano said organizations like the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority and the business improvement districts are contributors to the promotional work. “They are all telling their stories about all the great things happening in the neighborhoods and downtown, and everywhere around Schenectady County. That’s part of our job as well,” he said. “What I have been most impressed with is the cooperation and the collaboration between all of these different organizations. We’re all kind of beating the same drum, which is great. Nobody is competing against one another. We’re all supporting one another and telling this positive story.”

Proven track record

During his time in Saratoga Springs, Garofano had a hand in growing popular events such as Chowderfest and the creation of Saratoga Beer Week and the Saratoga Frozen Springs Pond Hockey Classic.

“I arrived in 2010 just after Chowderfest and I think they had around 10,000 people and around 40 to 45 vendors,” he said. “By the time I left, I think we grew to a height of where we had 97 or 98 different restaurants involved and the crowd size was 40,000.

“I’m pretty proud of that,” he said. “Honestly, it was a little scary — 40,000 people in the middle of downtown, mostly outside on a February Saturday. We grew it, and the way we grew that was really expanding our marketing footprint so we cast a wider net. We created overnight packages.

“The whole goal in everything we do is to bring visitors in,” Garofano said. “We had a tie to an overnight component to all of those things. We were able to do that. At its height, we generated maybe 300 ‘room nights’ on one of the busier Chowderfest weekends. “

Saratoga Beer Week started out as a weekend promotion that drew 300 to 400 people the first year and expanded to an event that drew nearly 10,000 people, Garofano said.

Following a similar approach of teaming with local and national sponsors, the pond hockey event was born. “The whole idea there was to bring business into town on what would otherwise be a quiet weekend,” Garofano said. “The first year we had maybe 40 teams, mostly regional, but by the fourth year we were well over 100 teams and had teams coming in from all over the Northeast and Canada. We really grew that.”

Garofano said some new activities may be created through his work with Discover Schenectady to complement the many already in place in the city and county.

“I think the thing that we will look to create is to fill gaps and we’ll always have a room-night component,” he said. “The Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp. does a great job with their Soup Stroll and Wing Walk. The county does a great job with [SummerNight]. Mohawk Harbor has Harbor Jam. There are some awesome events in Schenectady. We’re not going to look to duplicate efforts, by any means. If we come across an event that makes sense, fills a gap and generates ‘room nights,’ those are the type of things that we will look at doing.”

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

Categories: Business, News, Outlook 2021, Schenectady County

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