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NTCC President Percy takes wasteful expedition to India with public money

March 30, 2009

By Frank Parlato Jr.

For John Percy, the secretive president of the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corporation (NTCC), the job is one of glamorous travel.

Normally a president of a promotional company, whether private or public, does not go constantly traveling, but stays put to manage operations.

Percy is actually out of Niagara Falls more than in it.

He has been to Delhi, Mumbai, London, Prague, Berlin, Geneva, Milan and other places that he has chosen not to reveal. Records show he took more than 44 trips last year.

Percy's trip to India

NTCC President John Percy went twice to India on our tax dollars.

None of this would be our business if it were not for the fact that the public pays for Percy's trips. The city of Niagara Falls gives the NTCC, allegedly a not-for-profit corporation, about $2.2 million every year. And up until recently asked no questions.

Now City Councilman Sam Fruscione has demanded a forensic audit and says the millions might be better spent in returning the streets here to a reasonable level of safety.

It's hard to fathom how Percy or anyone else in a virtually bankrupt city could expect the NTCC would never have to account for how it spends public money. Yet Percy has steadfastly refused to reveal what he does with the public's money, maintaining the fiction that the NTCC is a private corporation.

Indeed, the NTCC always operated in the shadows until the Niagara Falls Reporter uncovered last fall their last four years of tax returns, then posted them online.

The tax returns, while giving a strong indication of waste and mismanagement, do not tell the whole story. They do show an organization that spends substantially more on salaries and exotic travel than on advertising promoting the area.

A forensic audit is needed, however, to show precisely where the money went -- which, in turn, will help the public measure the results of their expenditures and assess NTCC's worth.

The NTCC supposedly exists, after all, to promote tourism in Niagara Falls.

By contract with the city of Niagara Falls, 80 percent of the hotel bed taxes collected from the city's approximately 2,900 rooms, at 5 percent of every hotel room rented, goes to the NTCC.

That's about $1 million per year. Another $1 million comes from the city's share of the Seneca Niagara Casino revenue.

Although the NTCC is supposed to promote the whole county, Niagara Falls pays nearly all of its funding. The county contributed a paltry $94,000 in hotel bed taxes last year.

Percy, who has garnered a lot of criticism for his secretive and rather arrogant attitude toward disclosure, has also garnered criticism for taking his second trip to exotic India. He claims a deal with an Indian marketing firm to set up Niagara Falls offices in Delhi and Mumbai was "based on great research." And required his visits there.

So he jetted off last week with NTCC employee Elizabeth Davis, director of sales.

But several local Indian business owners said his trips have been entirely useless.

Parminder Singh, who owns the Punjabi Hut restaurant on Niagara Street, said Indian visitors started coming to the Falls beginning in 1998 because of the relaxation of H-1 visas.

Not because of John Percy.

"They come to the USA to visit their families," said Singh. "They would also like to see Niagara Falls because it is a wonder of the world."

Surprisingly, most Indian tourists -- more than 70 percent, according to Singh -- are guided in their travel plans by Indians living in the USA.

J.V. Lakshmana Rao, editor of the India Tribune, explained, "Everyone in India already knows of Niagara Falls as America's natural wonder. It is taught in our schools.

"Indian parents, visiting their children in America, ask their adult, usually highly successful children, to make arrangements to see the sights in America and accompany them."

In short, Indians living in America usually decide the itinerary for Indians visiting the USA.

There are about 2.3 million Indians living in the USA, and they are among the most affluent ethnicity in the country.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, more than 567,000 Indians (coming directly from India) visited the United States in 2007. Of those, approximately 141,000 visited Niagara Falls, N.Y. About the same as they did before Percy came to town.

But according to tourism estimates, more than double that figure of Indian visitors were here last year. The rest of them were already living in places like Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C.

Consequently, many of the Indian tourists we see here in Niagara Falls and most of the Indian decision-makers who determine to come to Niagara Falls already live in the USA, making marketing to Indians in India less important than marketing to Indians in America.

There are about 10 American-based Indian ethnic newspapers where NTCC marketing could be done, the largest of which are the India Tribune, India Abroad, India Post and Desai Times.

These weekly newspapers have strong penetration in the Indian community in America -- particularly in New York, New Jersey, Texas, Illinois and California, where the Indian population is highest.

The NTCC advertises in none of these.

Indeed, for the cost of sending one Percy to India, NTCC could advertise with full-page ads in the India Tribune for a year and probably reach more decision-makers on trips by Indians to Niagara Falls than by visits to India.

The Continental Airlines flight for Percy and Davis would have cost more than $2,200 each, if they went coach. But sources confirmed last week that they went first class -- which was $4,695 each.

And Percy might have stayed at a Crowne Plaza or Holiday Inn for $100 a night, in keeping with the caliber of properties he's promoting. But he and Davis stayed at the 5-star Four Seasons Mumbai, at a cost of $634 per night.

When asked by the Niagara Gazette, the secretive Percy refused to give specifics of his trip. But oddly speaking of himself in the third person, Percy said, "This is not a lavish trip nor is this an exotic trip that John Percy is taking."

When asked by the Niagara Gazette whether he would be willing to make public all receipts and expenditures upon returning from the trip, Percy declined, saying he's concerned some would overscrutinize the receipts and try to create controversy that isn't there.

Perhaps flying first class and staying at expensive hotels might cause a controversy.

Who knows?

Sources who served on past NTCC boards say one type of receipt that should be scrutinized carefully are restaurant tabs.

Percy, a gourmand and connoisseur of fine wines and liquors, has dinner bills frequently in excess of $1,000.

One wonders if it isn't right for the residents of this city to feed Percy a little less sumptuously and fix a pothole instead.

"This trip is a legitimate and worthwhile effort," Percy said of his India trip, adding that he absolutely will not tell the public how much he spent on hotels or dining or networking expenses.

Or even how much he is paying his consultants there.

But he's willing to report on the successes of his trip.

"We come home exhausted, but excited about the efforts we made," Percy said.

Last year on his return from India, Percy told the press that he and his party were "treated like royalty" on the subcontinent.

But one prominent Indian restaurant- and hotel-owner summed it up best when, asked whether Percy's India journey last year had benefited his business. He responded with a question of his own.

"Who is John Percy?" he asked.

Ironically, Percy recently bragged to his colleagues/competitors at the North American Journeys (NAJ) Summit about how well he has done in India.

On Feb. 2, Percy made a presentation in Los Angeles at the NAJ Summit to hundreds of eager promoters. It was entitled "How Niagara Falls' (NTCC) Penetrated the India Market."

The problem with this, perhaps, is that Percy is explaining to other tourism promoters in other cities the so-called secrets of getting tourists from India.

In reality, he is supposed to be competing with these promoters -- who, one assumes, would love to lure Indians to come to their cities instead of Niagara Falls.

If it were true that Percy really penetrated the Indian market -- a market that actually blossomed five years before he started work at the NTCC -- you would think he would want to keep his method a secret.

Frankly, Percy has no more penetrated the Indian market than he has done anything else. As far as we can tell, he has done virtually nothing.

"Mr. Percy is traveling all over the world and using taxpayers' dollars to do it," Fruscione said. "What's the exact benefit to the city? We're all being held accountable, except for him."

"If you go to the state park, you can see the presence (of Indian visitors)," Percy said.

This is true.

But it is not likely that a single one of these -- not a blessed one -- came because of Percy or his exorbitant first-class trips to India.



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.