Moke McGowan had worked his way almost halfway around the world when he came to Long Island a decade ago to take charge of marketing Nassau and Suffolk's tourist attractions to potential visitors from out of town and abroad.
Now, at age 64, he's getting ready to leave his post as president of the Long Island Convention & Visitors Bureau and Sports Commission. He plans to retire in September to a quieter life in North Carolina, where he was state director of tourism and still has a home.
Born in Las Vegas, reared in Honolulu, McGowan studied journalism at the University of Nevada in Reno when his parents moved back to Nevada. He then held advertising and tourism-related posts in Nevada, Hawaii, San Francisco and Oregon as well as North Carolina.
In recent years the commission, which works under contracts from Nassau and Suffolk counties, has had to battle the effects of the recession, which cut total leisure revenues on the Island from $5.1 billion in 2008 to as low as $4.4 billion in 2009. It was back up to $5.1 billion in 2012. Most recently, McGowan and his team have worked to overcome the impact of superstorm Sandy, which caused enormous damage in some places when it struck on Oct. 29, 2012.
In your 10 years doing this job, has the travel and tourism business on Long Island changed fundamentally in any way?
We've seen significant growth of lodging properties and rooms without a major new product to help drive demand for those rooms. So we've had to be more aggressive. One thing we did differently -- and this goes back to 2008 -- is we, for the first time, started looking at the international traveler to augment our domestic leisure traveler.
How is that working out?
Exceptionally well. There were a little over a million U.K. visitors to New York City last year and the year before that. It's estimated we get about 10 percent of those folks. We recognize we are never going to be a destination unto ourselves in Europe, but we are going to be the best crumb snatchers off the New York City plate.
Attendance at local state parks was down last year by 12 percent from the year before, to 16.7 million visitors, the second year of declines. How important are these parks in that $5.1 billion total?
They're a contributor but probably not a major contributor. We focus on overnight visitation. The average expenditure of a day-trip visitor is $59. The overnight leisure traveler averages $224. It's higher for the business traveler and significantly higher for the international visitor.
Long Island MacArthur Airport is having problems again. Southwest has reduced service, PenAir will leave this summer and Allegiant Air has suspended service for the rest of this year. No major new carriers have been attracted since Southwest. If it were a busy airport with lots of service, would that help the local tourism industry?
It depends on who the carrier is and where they're coming from. Most carriers look at Long Island MacArthur as an outbound airport. Long Island has 3.5-plus million people, and the convenience should be there for people wanting to leave the Island, whether it's for business or pleasure, and come back through MacArthur. From a tourism standpoint that doesn't help us a lot. And, because of cutbacks in capacities, airlines are no longer willing to take a risk on an airport to try it out.
Have rising airfares helped or hurt tourism on Long Island?
Better than 70 percent of our [day-trip, stay-over, leisure and business] traffic is driving, not flying. And as airfares have gone up, as service has declined, as inconveniences have increased, we've become that much more attractive to the drive market. Certainly it has not had a negative impact.
NAME: Moke McGowan, president, Long Island Convention & Visitors' Bureau and Sports Commission in Hauppauge.
WHAT IT DOES: Promotes the Island's travel and leisure businesses.
PROJECTED 2014 BUDGET: $2,962,250.