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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with Cristyne Nicholas

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-05-03

Cristyne Nicholas, president and chief executive officer of NYC & Company, has been selling stuff for much of her life.

There was the lemonade stand when she was 8, which she diversified to include iced tea to ward off a competitor. When the Arab oil embargo hit America, she transformed the crisis into an economic opportunity to alleviate motorists' misery by selling cold soda cans at gas pumps. While at Rutgers University, she sold restaurant "specials of the day" while working as a waitress. She's been a bicycle messenger, and she's delivered newspapers.

She's sold Republican Party platforms to Democratic constituencies. She sold Rudolph Giuliani's programs when he was mayor and she was his press and communications adviser.

Now, as head of a not-for-profit organization whose origins date back 70 years, the Brooklyn-born Ms. Nicholas is selling New York to the rest of America and to the world.

And since getting the job in October 1999, she's done very well indeed. Last year, nearly 40 million tourists came to the city, 6 million of them from abroad - some 2 million more than in 2003. Their custom brought $3 billion in revenues to New York's tourism industry, and sustained more than 300,000 jobs in all five boroughs.

So what's it like selling the Big Apple to outsiders? What else does it take besides breaking bread at countless breakfasts and lunches; cajoling corporate titans to support her plans; making speeches at endless galas; attending scores of industry conventions; creating ad campaigns; managing a staff of 75 in New York; maintaining offices in Munich and London, and representations in Paris, Milan, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Washington - and riding atop an elephant when the circus comes to town?

"I'll do just about anything for New York City," Ms. Nicholas said over lunch. "But I won't jump out of planes."

No? But even one of her former bosses, President George H. W. Bush - whose election drive she helped manage in Maryland - has been diving from planes.

"Well," said Ms. Nicholas, "I'm quite confident that I have a variety of talents. But jumping out of planes isn't one of them. I'm just not a daredevil."

As the city's chief salesperson for tourism and hospitality, she's not required to jump out of planes, of course, but she needs to be in them quite a bit. On her schedule may be China, which she's designated as a major target for New York's tourism plans because of the country's increasing prosperity. She may also visit India, another economically dynamic country whose citizens Ms. Nicholas wants to woo more. She plans to be in Singapore in July, when the International Olympic Committee announces which finalist - New York, Paris, London, Madrid and Moscow - will get to host the 2012 Summer Games.

Those games - featuring 28 sports - are expected to fetch billions in revenues for the host city. But that city may also have to spend at least $5 billion in preparations, the amount forked out by Athens for the 2004 Olympics.

Ms. Nicholas is enthusiastic about New York's prospects in Singapore. Her immediate concerns, however, are a little closer to home. Starting today - and running through May 7 - more than 5,500 tourism-industry representatives will gather in New York for the 37th Annual International Pow Wow at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. Pow Wow, she said, is expected to generate an additional $400 million annually in direct visitor spending here, perhaps increasing the number of international visitors to 7.3 million by 2008 and thickening the city's tourism industry well beyond its current annual revenues of $25 billion. (Of the city's foreign visitors, a million come from Britain; 900,000 from Canada; and 400,000 each from Japan, France and Germany.)

They may seem like nice numbers, but the ambitious Ms. Nicholas has something far loftier in mind. At an international trade show in London, she was struck by splashy booths for Las Vegas, Orlando and a couple of other American cities. "I said to myself, 'My goodness, these destinations seem to have a lot more money to promote themselves than we do,'" Ms. Nicholas said.

That's when her competitiveness kicked in.

"I said, 'But we're New York - we can compete,'" Ms. Nicholas said.
And compete New York does: it's the number one arrival destination for an overwhelming number of foreign tourists to America. New York, after all, is New York. Ms. Nicholas roped in Hideki Matsui, the Yankee star, who plugged the city in his native Japan. There's Broadway. There are the museums and other cultural institutions with which Ms. Nicholas has developed partnerships.

There's the just-completed annual Tribeca Film Festival, which figured prominently in the city's efforts to resuscitate tourism after the tragedy of September 11, 2001. There's the high-end shopping, which is especially attractive to Europeans and the Japanese because of the dollar's decline.

There's "Restaurant Week" in summer and winter, which Ms. Nicholas helped expand, to "make top-level dining affordable and less intimidating" to everyday New Yorkers and tourists in more than 200 establishments. There are visitor kiosks she enhanced in Midtown Manhattan, Harlem, Chinatown, and, soon, in Queens. There's her emphasis on the city's extraordinary ethnic diversity.

One would think that with its stellar attractions - and a history that goes back to 1524 when a Florentine nobleman, Giovanni da Verrazano discovered Manhattan from the deck of his ship, La Dauphine, which he was using on behalf of the French king - New York would be the number one American city for conventions. But it's far behind Las Vegas, Chicago and Orlando.

Indeed, when Ms. Nicholas crunches budgetary numbers, it's "a very frustrating situation."

Consider this: NYC & Company's annual budget is around $14.5 million, money obtained mostly from the city and from its 1,700 corporate and other members who pay between $425 and $5,000 in yearly fees. Las Vegas spends $170 million each year on promoting itself. Reno, Nevada, and Orlando also have larger budgets.

So Ms. Nicholas is trying to rope in more funds, and in this she has a valuable ally in her organization's chairman, Jonathan Tisch. As a result, American Express, Coca-Cola, Merrill Lynch, and Time Warner, among others, have become committed corporate sponsors.

All this takes relentless work. It takes time. It means early mornings and late nights. Where does her energy come from?

"I try to run often," Ms. Nicholas said. "That gives me incredible energy."

There's also Super Gabby.

Super Gabby?

"Gabby is Gabriella, my Bassett hound," Ms. Nicholas said, with a fond smile. The screensaver on her office computer features a picture of Gabriella in a cape, looking like a character out of the comics; hence the sobriquet, Super Gabby. "Just thinking of her fills me with great love."

There's Nick Nicholas, her writer-husband, whose specialty is golf. They are both marathon runners.

There's her father, Joseph Lategano, known as "Coach Joe" because he coaches and mentors youths in basketball and soccer in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he moved from the family's Long Island home after retirement Ms. Nicholas says she's very close to him, just as she's close to her older sister Barbara.

Perhaps the person she was closest to was her mother, Mary, a legal assistant, who encouraged her to read and who secretly hoped that Ms. Nicholas would become a lawyer.

"She was awfully proud of everything I did," Ms. Nicholas said.

She died on March 17, at the age of 71.

"I find it very difficult to speak about her in the past tense," Mary Lategano's daughter said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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