SWAINTON, N.J. - When Melissa Roy took over as the third-generation operator of her family's motel, the V.I.P. in Wildwood Crest, she found a cartoon from the mid-1960s that her aunt had drawn for the inn's original brochure. It featured - of all things - a couple of bedbugs.

"We had a good laugh over it. It had one bedbug saying to the other one, 'Hey, let's get out of here. This place is too clean for us,' " Roy said. "Maybe we'll use it on a new brochure. It seems like a timely idea now."

That's because at its last monthly meeting before the summer season, the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce last week wasn't talking about economic projections or the best place to buy mini-soap in bulk.

Instead, the talk at the Sand Barrens Golf Club focused on what could be the dirtiest word in the hospitality industry: bedbugs.

For nearly three hours, about 50 operators of motels, hotels, and other businesses learned all about the little bloodsuckers, which were all but eradicated by pesticides after World War II but have made a startling comeback in the United States in the last decade. Experts say the problem in the Northeast is expected to worsen this summer as temperatures rise and vacationers throng to places such as the Jersey Shore.

"It's no longer a matter of if it happens. It's when," Phil Cooper, president of BedBug Central, told the group.

BedBug Central, a Lawrenceville website and consulting service created in 2007, offers consumers and businesses information and products for dealing for bedbugs. The staff, which has two entomologists, including Cooper's brother, Richard, lectures throughout the country.

Cooper contends that bedbugs are simply misunderstood. Breakouts can occur anywhere and have nothing to do with cleanliness.

And while they create itchy, red welts, they do not cause infection or disease. They are nocturnal, feed exclusively on blood, and will make an appearance looking for a host about once a week. Their bites are initially painless, Cooper said.

Female bedbugs are inseminated only once but lay about 300 eggs every six weeks for the rest of their life. The eggs are so small that dozens can be laid on the top of a screw - like the kind that hold together the headboards of hotel beds. Summer temperatures (about 86 degrees) allow a bedbug to go from egg to adult in three weeks instead of the usual six to eight weeks, according to Susan Jones, an entomologist at Ohio State University.

That quick turnaround, coupled with heavy travel, may create a kind of East Coast bedbug-palooza in the coming months.

"You really can't prevent bedbugs. All you can really do is educate yourself about them and be prepared for when they appear," said Cooper, adding that he had worked with several businesses in the region that wasted tens of thousands of dollars on "knee-jerk reactions" before they consulted experts.

Cooper recommends aggressive preventative measures, including vigilance in dealing with luggage after a trip and the use of specially made mattress covers.

He recommends that motels, hotels, transportation operators, hospitals, and even retailers work monthly with pest-control companies that are trained in identifying bedbugs and removing them if there is an infestation.

After listening to Cooper and a panel that comprised two lawyers, an insurance broker, and a public-relations expert, business owners left the meeting with an arsenal to combat a summer bedbug siege should it arise, chamber president Vicki T. Clark said.

"Our members were able to come here today and really learn valuable information about taking a proactive approach to dealing with an issue that really is on everyone's mind but a lot of people in the industry may be afraid to talk about," Clark said.

Phyllis Amendt, who 57 years ago founded A. Amendt Pest Control Co. Inc. of Glenolden, Pa., said she attended Thursday's session to learn about the concerns of her lodging customers at the Shore.

"Bedbugs were something we never really had to deal with until recent years. We then we sent four employees to Florida to be specially trained," said Amendt, who also uses her "bedbug dog," Quincy, to ferret out the pests. "The best thing people can do to prevent the spread of bedbugs is to become educated about them."

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.