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Shore season hurt by new marketing, fall in Canadian dollar

Jacqueline L. Urgo, Staff Writer

Updated: Sunday, September 4, 2016, 11:59 PM

The beach was crowded Friday to start Labor Day weekend in Ocean City, N.J., but many worried about a stormy finish.

It's said you have to take the bad with the good.

The idiom applies perfectly to the Jersey Shore, where good weather can drive a seasonal economy, and bad weather can bust it.

Weeks of unrelenting hot weather during prime vacation time in July and August may ultimately mean record-setting tourism spending for 2016, maybe up by as much 2 percent over last summer. But Hermine's stormy kicker over Labor Day weekend threatened to seriously dampen the bottom line for businesses that depend on every sunny day to keep them out of the red.

"We were kind of counting on this weekend to push us into where we want our bottom line to be," said Toby Ciankowski, whose family operates an ice cream stand on the Wildwood boardwalk.

Ciankowski keept a close eye on Hermine as it chewed through Florida and Georgia. "But I don't know if that's going to happen for us now, thanks to the rainy, windy forecast."

Tourism was a $43.4 billion industry in New Jersey in 2015, with the Shore accounting for nearly half that total. The number of visitors to New Jersey last year was 95 million, up 2.4 percent from the previous year. The hospitality industry supported 318,000 jobs.

Last summer was something of a bounce-back year for the Shore, with the revenue generated by the state's 5 percent hotel/motel occupancy tax up by 3.3 percent over the previous summer. It was the first year that tax revenue exceeded its previous peak in 2012, just before Hurricane Sandy hit.

By Labor Day, hotels, rental agents, restaurants, stores, and entertainment venues usually can agree on the success of a season. This year, reviews are mixed.

"It really depends on who you talk to and in what town," said Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, based in Trenton. "It's not an across-the-board general consensus the way it usually is. Some of our members are telling us they had a great summer. . . . Others are saying not so great."

Halvorsen and others said some questioned the effectiveness of shifting funding to digital marketing from traditional TV and print ads.

The state Division of Travel and Tourism "didn't have the big marketing tourism campaign they usually have, and I think it ultimately hurt towns along the Shore that may not have had their own strong campaigns in place," Halvorsen said.

Diane F. Wieland, director of Cape May County's Department of Tourism, said, "You have to follow the money."

"I don't think it's the millennials who have the money to spend who would be getting their information digitally," she said. "We find that our target market - the older and family traveler - still gets its information in more traditional formats, so our target market wasn't seeing us digitally."

In the spring, state officials predicted there would be an economically strong season if businesses and municipalities that depend on tourism dollars continued to diversify their market and offerings to visitors.

By June, with dozens of big concerts and specialty events already in the bag, the region had experienced a strong spring shoulder season - even in beleaguered Atlantic City, where non-casino hotels reported an 11 percent year-over-year increase in revenue during the first six months of the year. About 4.2 percent more revenue had been collected in occupancy tax in Cape May County over the previous year, officials said.

"Last year was a record-setting year for tourism here. . . . This year could be, too," Wieland said then.

Reflecting now, Wieland and others are less optimistic.

Though gas prices remained steady - an impetus for day-trippers and short-term visitors - a weak Canadian dollar meant fewer visitors from the north.

In the Wildwood and Sea Isle City area - long strongholds for Canadians - motels and campgrounds have reported being off by as much as 40 percent in attracting Canadians, whose dollar has fallen to about 77 cents against the U.S. dollar.

"But we knew that was coming, because of the exchange rate, so we worked hard to get the word out about Cape May County at travel shows a little farther away, in places like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston," Wieland said. "We know that the farther people drive, the longer they will stay, and the longer they stay means they will spend more."

Business owners agreed.

"It's been a tough summer, but I think we'll make our numbers. . . . We've just had to work a little harder for it," said Carmen Conti, whose family owns a marina and a seafood restaurant in Sea Isle City. "Losing so much Canadian business has hurt, so we've had to make it up elsewhere."

Despite marketing glitches and a weak Canadian dollar, most officials said they were optimistic about the outcome when all the numbers are tallied for 2016.

"It's really been a good summer," said Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton University in Galloway Township.

"If the results of the first two quarters of the year are any indication, I think we are poised to see the numbers for the summer and the remainder of the year in a very good place," Pandit said, pointing to casino revenues. "The indicators look good for the industry across the board in Atlantic City and elsewhere at the Shore."

jurgo@phillynews.com

609-652-8382 @JacquelineUrgo

www.philly.com/downashore

Jacqueline L. Urgo, Staff Writer

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