Post-Sandy, Long Island sees an uptick in summer vacationers

The Hermitage in Amagansett. (Aug. 28, 2013) The Hermitage in Amagansett. (Aug. 28, 2013) Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

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Long Island's $5 billion tourism industry survived Sandy.

As the summer vacation season draws to a close, many businesses throughout Long Island, ranging from eateries to wineries to resorts, say they are meeting or surpassing last year's revenue.

While Islandwide tourism industry statistics aren't out yet for this summer, a few indicators support the impression that vacationers continued to flock to Long Island. Through July 31, Montauk eastbound ridership on Fridays was up 3 percent year to date over last year, according to the Long Island Rail Road.

And July hotel occupancy rose to 80.2 percent from 76.6 percent a year earlier, according to Smith Travel Research of Hendersonville, Tenn.

"It has turned out to be a very strong summer, empirically and anecdotally," said Moke McGowan, president of the Long Island Convention & Visitors Bureau.

To be sure, superstorm Sandy, which struck on Oct. 29, hurt many businesses that cater to visitors. Some restaurants along Freeport's Nautical Mile, in Long Beach, Southold and elsewhere didn't survive the damage they received. The storm, with its ensuing power outages and gasoline shortages, prevented customers from making their way to the North Fork's wineries, disrupting their business during the fall season.

Even intact businesses worried that customers would stay away because of high gasoline prices, the financial strains of Sandy repairs and misconceptions that every shoreline venue was knocked out.

But businesses, business groups and government agencies used social media and advertising campaigns to get the word out that the vast majority of tourism-oriented venues were ready, willing and able to serve visitors. And tourists returned.

Splish Splash, the Riverhead water park, used the off-season to clean up fallen trees, damaged slides and flooding -- and tracked its progress with photos on Facebook, its website, Twitter and Instagram.

As a result, "it was a successful year for us," said Mike Bengtson, the park's general manager. "We're on target to meet last year's results."

In November, many customers of the 30-year-old Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue canceled their reservations for its annual barrel-tasting event. During the winter, the vineyard regularly updated its Facebook page about its post-Sandy status.

"And here it is, nine months later, and we forgot about Sandy and are having an excellent year," said owner Charles Massoud. He said Paumanok Vineyards is on target to grow revenue by as much as 15 percent by the year-end.

 

'New guests this season'

Tourism looms large for the region's economy. The sector employed 74,128 workers in 2012, which accounted for 6.2 percent of all employment on Long Island, according to a report prepared for Empire State Development, New York's primary business aid agency. Travelers spent $5.1 billion on Long Island last year, a 6.3 percent increase over 2011 outlays of $4.8 billion, according to the report.

To some extent, operations that survived Sandy intact got extra business from establishments that were less fortunate. In particular, the East End, which missed the brunt of the storm, emerged as a substitute destination for the hard-hit New Jersey shore.

"Statistically, we're seeing a lot of new guests this season, and it's partly people who used to go to the Jersey shore, since we're seeing [more] ZIP codes from New Jersey pop up in our database," said Lloyd Van Horn, general manager of the Montauk Yacht Club.

Sebastian Mattiauda, general manager of The Hermitage, an Amagansett resort, said the public generally "knew that the affected areas were toward the city and New Jersey, but some guests called to confirm that we didn't have damage."

Since the start of the summer season on Memorial Day, the resort's revenue has increased 15 percent over the same period in 2012, said Mattiauda.

The three-bedroom Blue Iris Bed & Breakfast in Cutchogue has also prospered. Lorry Siani, who owns the property with her husband, Jerry, said the season was their best since opening the place 11 years ago. Siani attributed a 20 percent revenue increase over last year, in part, to her decision this year to use an online registration service that draws a younger clientele and encourages guests to write reviews on TripAdvisor.

 

Post-Sandy boost for hotels

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Long Beach's Allegria Hotel was closed for about three weeks after the storm flooded the city and destroyed its boardwalk. But this summer, as the boardwalk is being reconstructed, the hotel's revenue has increased 15 percent over last year. Nasser Samman, general manager, said the hotel has drummed up business by doing everything from running weekend packages to contacting meeting planners and travel agents.

Hotels actually got a boost for some months following Sandy, as they were filled with FEMA employees, building contractors and dislocated residents taking up temporary residence.

Long Island's average hotel occupancy in the first three months of 2013 jumped to 72.9 percent from 55.9 percent in the same period in 2012, according to Smith Travel Research. The average room price rose to $126.77 from $114.

"That really set the foundation going into spring," said the Convention & Visitor Bureau's McGowan. By July, average room rates rose to $152.46, versus $142.56 in July 2012, according to Smith Travel.

An unanticipated rise in lodging taxes, which fund a portion of the bureau's marketing efforts, enabled the organization to spend $125,000 more than the $589,000 it initially budgeted to promote Long Island tourism beyond its traditional 250-mile radius. As a result, the bureau was able to expand its efforts to include Boston and the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area.

Among New York State's efforts, Long Island beaches were featured in its "I Love New York" commercials, while the LIRR offered fare discounts on various East End trips, as well as a Long Beach package that included merchant discounts and a reduced admission price for the beach.

In addition, Long Beach -- for the first time -- waged a $700,000 media blitz that encompassed not only billboards in Manhattan and ads in subway stations but TV and radio spots with native son Billy Crystal extolling Long Beach as a "paradise." The city also organized a string of events, including a street fair in mid-July that attracted as many as 8,000 people.

 

Scenario 'far from rosy'

Still, as the community continued to grapple with Sandy's impact, Scott J. Mandel, president of the City Council in Long Beach, said that the picture is "far from rosy," adding, "Our mantra is 'We will not be satisfied until everyone comes home.' "

"Sandy-slammed businesses are back, but getting Long Islanders to return to South Shore restaurants, shops and other locations that were hit by the storm is the key to their survival," Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray said late last month.

In the end, the resurgence couldn't happen without a lot of sweat by local businesses. Island Park-based Empire Kayaks suffered nearly $200,000 in damage from Sandy, including the destruction of its waterfront shop. Empire's customers are typically day-trippers from throughout the tri-state area.

After lots of hands-on help from family and friends in rebuilding the waterfront operation, Empire is in business again.

"We're back to normal and on target to meet or exceed last year's numbers," said Michael Fehling, who owns the 15-year-old operation with his wife, Gabrielle. "I'm ecstatic."

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