New Haven sees rise in tourism, both at Yale and beyond

While many visitors — whether prospective students, theatergoers or alumni — are drawn to the city by Yale, the University is not the only tourist attraction in town.
While many visitors — whether prospective students, theatergoers or alumni — are drawn to the city by Yale, the University is not the only tourist attraction in town. Photo by Cynthia Hua.

The past few weeks have marked the start of the college visit tour season that will last through the summer.

Still, apart from the typical summer surge soon to follow, tourism in New Haven and Yale has been growing over the past several years, said Ginny Kozlowski, executive director of REX Development, a group that helps market businesses in the greater New Haven area.

From 2010 to 2011, hotel occupancy rates in New Haven increased by 4.4 percent and average daily rate per room increased by 3.3 percent. Both measurements are indicators of growth in New Haven’s tourism industry over the last several years, Kozlowski said, adding that both Tweed New Haven Regional Airport and Union Station have also seen increased traffic.

“We can see the rise just by the noticeably increased foot traffic and the opening of businesses that cater to travelers,” she said.

The city has built on its relationship with Yale to market New Haven as a tourist destination, especially its culinary and cultural offerings.

Universities in the greater New Haven area — including Yale, Quinnipiac and the University of New Haven — attract a “natural base” of visitors that the city can rely on, Kozlowki added.

“We’re here all for Yale,” said one tourist from Michigan, Patricia Sundman, on a visit with her husband and three children. “For the Yale buildings, the Yale architecture and … the Yale gear.”

‘PRIMARY DRAW’?

When the economy dipped in 2007, New Haven did not experience the same dramatic decline in hotel occupancy rates as other Connecticut cities did, said Kozlowski, an indication that New Haven’s tourist base is leisure-driven, rather than dependent on business.

Yale is one of the “primary draws” to New Haven, Kozlowski said, falling under the category of “leisure-driven.”

Kozlowski said sources such as tour registration totals indicate that Yale draws around 500,000 visitors a year, between alumni, prospective students and families of current students. Both local and international independent tour groups contribute a “significant number” of these visitors to Yale, Kozlowski said.

For the Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale, peak seasons align with the University’s calendar, said Jill Flynn, Omni’s director of sales and marketing. She cited the Yale-Harvard football game, Commencement and Family Weekend as times of peak occupancy. Win Davis, acting director of the Town Green Special Services District, said that INFO New Haven — the visitor information center operated jointly with Yale on the corner of Chapel and College streets — experiences similar trends, with peaks in tourism occurring when Yale hosts major events and lulls during the summers.

“When the freshmen are moving and their parents are coming in from all over, we see an upswing. When you are guys are gone it’s slower,” added Donna Wardle, executive assistant at the New Haven Museum on Whitney Avenue.

Yale offers two different tours to visitors, one geared toward prospective students and the other to the general public. The Yale Visitor Center, which runs the general tours, gives over 1,100 tours to more than 80,000 visitors annually, said Nancy Franco, the Center’s director, in an email.

Like INFO New Haven, the Yale Visitor Center also markets the University’s tour attractions to bus tour and travel planners. Private tour bookings with the Yale Visitor Center have doubled since 2006, Franco said.

BEYOND YALE

Many groups unaffiliated with the University also work to bring in tourism to the New Haven area, building off of Yale’s reputation.

“With Yale University as the centerpiece, the hospitality industry is the economic driver of downtown — anchor hotels, award-winning dining, world-class museums and theater, and eclectic shopping and night clubs,” said Anne Worcester, chief marketing officer of Market New Haven — a parternship promoting the city funded by public and private groups including the city, Yale and local businesses — in an email.

Market New Haven collaborates with Yale year-round on initiatives to promote the city. Partnerships include work with University Properties — Yale’s real estate arm — to promote downtown shopping, collaboration with Yale Visitor Center tours to draw tourists into the city, and work with the Association of Yale Alumni to encourage alumni to visit and explore the developing Elm City.

The city’s 375-year history and 171 restaurants make New Haven a valuable vacation destination, Davis said. Referring to New Haven as the “cultural capital of Connecticut,” he said that “many but not all” of New Haven’s cultural institutions are affiliated with Yale.

Major New Haven events annually draw in thousands of visitors to the city, with the New Haven Open and the International Festival of Arts & Ideas each drawing between 75,000 and 100,000 attendees annually, according to Market New Haven.

The Omni Hotel at Yale receives guests largely from the New England area, coming to New Haven for non-Yale-related weekend getaways, Flynn said, taking advantage of New Haven’s restaurant, club and theater scene. She said the Omni’s romance and spa packages provide a possible measure of how many visitors come for purposes unrelated to Yale, receive around 5,000 nights of bookings a year.

“We are very encouraged about the amount of tourism we’re seeing. New Haven is just growing in popularity — the buzz is out about the restaurant scene and the theater scene and the numbers are on the rise,” Flynn said.

Colin Caplan founded Taste of New Haven last September, taking advantage of the city’s restaurant scene and walkability to offer food tours of New Haven. Over 800 people have participated in tours since the company started.

Part of his inspiration for starting the business was a desire to get people back to New Haven, despite the negative press surrounding crime in the city, by exposing them to the increasing number of dining options, Caplan said. Rather than the Yale alumni crowds he expected, he said, the core demographic signing up for tours is young people from across the state who are unaffiliated with Yale.

“With my company, I’m dealing with people that haven’t been to New Haven in years. They are glad to be able to have this enjoyable experience. They want to be able to come here,” Caplan said.

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