Meet the man responsible for bringing tourists back to New York City
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It’s a cool December afternoon as Fred Dixon and I sit down for an outdoor lunch and discuss New York’s resiliency.
We’re at one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, Cafe Luxembourg. A plexiglass wall and overhead heat lamp keep us warm enough that jackets come off.
Pre-pandemic, an outdoor meal during a New York winter was unheard of, but it’s just one way the city has reinvented itself and rethought the use of parking spaces and other limited public areas.
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Like so many restaurants around the city, Cafe Luxembourg closed its doors at the start of the pandemic. It first reopened with cocktails to go, then a limited menu. Classic French cuisine doesn’t really travel well, though.
Not long after, New York changed its rules, allowing outdoor dining in previously prohibited spaces. Overnight, tables and plywood sheds popped up. A city scarred from weeks of emptiness suddenly had a vibrant street life.
Cozy neighborhood fixtures like Cafe Luxembourg found themselves with twice as many tables once indoor dining resumed.
As Dixon and I enjoy our meals (the chicken paillard salad for Dixon and the steak tartare for me), we note how almost every seat inside and out is occupied.
The weekday business meeting has moved to neighborhood restaurants, making it hard to get reservations.
“I’ve always been envious of destinations like Paris, Rome or Barcelona where you have this amazing outdoor culture,” Dixon says between bites. “The Parisian cafe culture, to me, was always such a wonderful thing that seems so fitting for New York. You always had a little bit of that, but now we have so much more and it’s wonderful.”
Another setback, another opportunity to reinvent the wheel
New York — like so many of us — has had a really rough two years, but it’s on a path to coming back stronger than before. Dining is just one aspect of that rebound.
“We’re always bullish on New York and its future because I think it has, it has earned that,” Dixon says.
As president and CEO of NYC & Company, the city’s official tourism and marketing organization, Dixon’s literally paid to say that. But in a short trip through the city, signs of recovery are everywhere you look.
After lunch, we take the subway down to Times Square, check out the theater district and then join the crowds packing Rockefeller Center to see the Christmas tree. At each stop, Dixon lights up with joy at the crowds that had been absent for all too long.
“I never had a doubt that we would get back to this,” he says. “You had to remind yourself of that, because there were really long, dark days and the city felt so empty. It was just a matter of time.”
Then omicron hit and much of the entire city took yet another pause.
Broadway shows moved into a stop-start mode. The Rockettes canceled the last of their holiday performances. And once again, the tourists — mostly — canceled their trips.
This story also took a hiatus.
Fast forward to now and things are starting to improve. January is typically a slow month for tourism, as many people have just taken vacations and business trips haven’t ramped up quite yet. However, a steady decline in omicron cases offers renewed hope in kick-starting tourism for the city — even at a historically quiet time.
To help get more New York residents — and those a short drive away — to play tourist, Dixon’s group takes the restaurant specials and Broadway show discounts usually available in winter and combines them with a new hotel push and a set of deals around attractions. Instead of running a weeklong marketing blitz, the specials are available for several weeks under the banner of NYC Winter Outing.
The goal: Get people used to going out again. With each person returning to a normal life, hopefully, one or two others will also follow.
How a man from the South found his way to New York’s tourism sector
Travel has always been a part of Dixon’s life.
He grew up in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where his family has owned the 80-room Gillette Motel since 1957.
During college, Dixon worked as a reservation agent for Delta Air Lines. He then spent several years marketing destinations in the Smoky Mountains before a six-year stint as the director of tourism sales for the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation.
He always had his eyes set on New York, though.
By 2002, Dixon found himself moving to the Big Apple to become the director of sales and marketing for Planet Hollywood.
“I took the first job I could get,” Dixon says just as we board a subway downtown.
He then worked for a company that booked group tickets to Broadway shows before finally receiving the opportunity he’d been waiting for: an offer to join the marketing team for New York. In 2005, he started at NYC & Company as the vice president for tourism, and by March of 2014, he rose to become president and CEO.
Now, at age 52, he may have his biggest challenge yet: convincing crowds of people who spent two years visiting national parks to venture back into a big, crowded city.
What to expect in a post-omicron New York
As omicron fades, New York needs to find ways to get tourists back for good.
In 2019, the last full year before the pandemic, the city saw its 10th consecutive year of growth, drawing a record 66.6 million visitors. One out of every five of them came from outside the U.S., primarily from places like the United Kingdom, China, Canada, Brazil, France, Italy and Spain.
This year’s tourist makeup will be different. To put it mildly, the international landscape “still remains muddled,” according to Dixon.
While British visitors started flocking to New York as soon as the U.S. border reopened in early November, Chinese tourists have remained mostly absent thanks to Chinese officials implementing some of the world’s most restrictive travel rules.
To fill that gap, New York hopes to attract more domestic visitors, including those who are not quite ready to travel overseas in 2022.
Sure, New York has some of the toughest mask and vaccine mandates in the country, but visitors don’t seem to mind.
“The urban traveler is different than just your general leisure traveler,” Dixon says. “People that are looking to go to the beach … they’re not going to wear masks. That’s a very different mindset. You come to a dense, urban environment where part and parcel of the experience is immersion with other people. You feel more comfortable knowing that there’s those mask mandates and that everyone around you in the theater is vaccinated.”
However, invisible germs are still a concern to grapple with.
You bump elbows with dozens of people every day as you ride the subway, visit packed department stores and push your way to the front of a bar for another drink.
All of that goes against everything that we’ve been taught in the last two years of social distancing.
Nevertheless, Dixon is hopeful that soon visitors will once again enjoy being in a packed Broadway theater, laughing and crying along with hundreds of others.
“This is what people expect when they come to New York,” he says. “It’s to see the crossroads of the world, busy and bustling and full of excitement.”
Featured photo by Scott Mayerowitz/The Points Guy.
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