NYS Awards Series 2 Episode 1

Episode 148:

The 2019 NYS Tourism Excellence Award winners will be honored at the New York State Tourism Industry Association’s annual meeting on September 27. I had the privilege of talking to each of the winners about their award-winning programs, how those programs impacted tourism in their area and what they learned from being part of the program. The interviews had underlying themes of creativity, partnership, celebration and storytelling. This episode shares the wisdom and stories of those award winners, and I hope you come away as motivated and enlightened as I did.

On this episode of Destination on the Left, I share my conversations with:

  • David Lee, Marketing Operations Manager at the Finger Lakes Visitors Connection
  • Rob Casetti, Senior Director at Corning Museum of Glass
  • Jennifer Sammartino, Deputy Chief of Staff for Visit Staten Island
  • Scott Keller, Executive Director of Hudson Valley River National Heritage Area
  • Jennifer Ackerson, owner of ALON Marketing Group

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • David Lee’s best advice to tourism marketing professionals from his experiences at the Finger Lakes Visitors Connection and other places
  • The 150-year history of glass in Corning and what Corning Museum of Glass did to make their monumental Glass Barge project a resounding success
  • How Jennifer Sammartino and Visit Staten Island took their destination from “the fifth borough” to a vibrant, bustling destination with a great waterfront corridor
  • The ingenuity of Scott Keller’s Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area team, as they devised an app to tell the story of all the national heritage sites along the Hudson River Rail line.
  • What Jennifer Ackerson and her company, ALON Marketing Group, do to give back to New York’s destinations and teach the state’s businesses how to grow and be successful tourism spots

Finger Lakes Visitors Connection

David Lee is the Marketing Operations Manager for the Finger Lakes Visitors Connection, a position he has held for almost four years. Prior to that, David got his start busing tables, bartending, and eventually managing the IT at Lakes Nama and Canandaigua. David’s technological experience helped him land a job in tourism, where he has stayed for the past ten years. In the tourism industry, David has come to love helping people spend their free time enjoying themselves in the places that he’s grown up. He likes shaping experiences and seeing the things he’s worked so hard on benefit people directly, even if it’s just a map helping them to find their way. David encourages all tourism professionals to embrace their own leadership if they want to find themselves in management positions. He stressed creativity, knowing your strengths, and knowing your weaknesses when making decisions and taking on projects. Finally, David reminds all of us of how crucial it is that we take risks, be vulnerable, and make mistakes to learn and grow as tourism professionals. Following this advice is how David won the Excellence in Young Professional Leadership Award.

Corning Museum of Glass

Rob Casetti is the Senior Director at the Corning Museum of Glass and the recipient of the Excellence in Overall Tourism Marketing Award. Starting out as a designer and project planner, early tourism struggles led Rob to trust in data and customer behavior to drive creativity and innovation. Since then, he and his team have engaged in numerous complex projects, including the now award-winning Glass Barge. The barge explores 150 years of glass history in New York, with 30 stops spread across five months stretching from Brooklyn to Buffalo to the Finger Lakes. This barge celebrates the voyage of glass from Corning to Brooklyn that occurred right after the Civil War. It features live glassblowing demonstrations, historic sites, authentic maritime travel, and many other attractions along the way. Rob credits the success of such a massive undertaking to partnerships with numerous outlets, including CVBs, museums, markets, and other locales. Understanding the complexity of the project and leveraging these partnerships helped bring the Glass Barge to 55,000 people, an amazing number. Rob is humbled to receive the award and knows how incredible it is to be recognized in a tourist state as great as New York.

Visit Staten Island

Jennifer Sammartino is the Deputy Chief of Staff for Visit Staten Island and the recipient of the Excellence in Tourism Marketing Projects Award. In 2017, Jennifer was made Director of Tourism for New York’s fifth borough, which suffered from a reputation problem for a long time. While it doesn’t have Times Square or the Statue of Liberty, Staten Island is home to a pleasant mix of urban and rural areas, plenty of fun activities, historic Richmondtown, and the state’s only Tibetan museum. The hard part was building the borough’s waterfront corridor, raising awareness, and attracting tourists by removing negative stereotypes. Through collaboration with Empire State Development, I Love New York, The Staten Island Chamber of Commerce, and others, Jennifer and her team were able to elevate Staten Island. Popular tourist destinations and transportation outlets were prime targets for marketing campaigns while talking to the locals about why they loved Staten Island gave Jennifer a special lens through which to view the borough. The combination of partnership and local stories informed her team and helped them to revitalize Staten Island’s image as a fun tourist attraction, not just New York’s fifth borough.

Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area

Scott Keller is the Executive Director of the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area and recipient of the Excellence in Tourism Marketing Projects Award. Scott’s team developed a river and train tour app for riders of the Hudson Line between New York City and Albany. The app runs based on the theme of “What’s out the window?” When riders see something out of the train window or along the river, they can enter the app and explore six different themes, each one packed with historical information and stories about all of the sights to see. The trip was inspired by kayaking tours down the Hudson River and later evolved into a printed map of national heritage sites before finally becoming an app. While Scott acknowledges the difficulty of building, maintaining, and paying for an app, he credits his success to hard work and partnerships with places like Empire State Development and the app development company Oncell. Scott is honored to receive the award and blaze a new trail for Hudson River Valley tourism.

Alon Marketing Group

Jennifer Ackerson is the owner of ALON Marketing Group and a recipient of an Excellence in Leadership Award. She got her start in tourism at Discover Long Island 25 years ago. Jen has since built her consultancy and seen the tourism marketing industry grow and evolve, all while keeping her favorite things about it: creativity, partnerships, and helping destinations succeed. She loves teaching and giving back to the communities she helps and stays motivated by working with people and destinations she cares about. Her marketing consulting company, ALON Marketing Group, has partnered with New York City to roll out a training program delivering all of her knowledge from 20 years of tourism marketing experience. The program will train businesses in sales, marketing, operations, and how to attract more tourism. Jen recommends all tourism leaders ask questions, network, follow up, and represent themselves well to see results in the industry. She thinks the award is very cool, and is honored to receive it.


The common theme amongst all of these Excellence Award winners is the creativity, tenacity, and collaboration they have all brought to the table in different ways. Finger Lakes Visitors Connection’s David Lee is young but has the experience and spunk of an industry veteran. The Corning Museum of Glass achieved a colossal feat with its Glass Barge through partnerships and elbow grease. Visit Staten Island helped bring Staten Island from the back of people’s minds to the forefront of NYC tourism. Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area helped use modern technology to pique people’s curiosity about all of the exciting sights along the Hudson River. ALON Marketing Group brings Jennifer Ackerson’s 20+ years of experience to businesses and tourism professionals across New York in a friendly, teachable way. All of these award winners have helped foster innovation and drive New York’s tourism industry forward, and I am honored to speak with all of them about their accomplishments.


Episode Transcript

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