A week before the Memorial Day kickoff to summer, Long Island travel and leisure executives are forecasting a stronger vacation season than last year, buoyed by an improving economy and gas prices lower than last year, despite their recent increase.
The Long Island Convention & Visitors Bureau projects an increase of 2 percent to 4 percent in total travel and leisure revenue in 2015 over last year's estimated $5.6 billion, said Kristen Matejka, bureau director of marketing and communications. That would bring this year's expected total to about $5.75 billion.
Tourism spending rose about 3.6 percent last year from 2013, according the bureau.
Total travel and leisure revenue had slipped as low as $4.4 billion in 2009, knocked down by the steep recession that officially lasted from December 2007 to June 2009.
Improvement in the jobs picture and consumer confidence, higher retail sales and stock prices, and lower gasoline prices compared with a year ago have put more money into consumers pockets and will likely boost tourism this summer, said John Rizzo, chief economist of the Long Island Association, the major local business group. "I think the bureau's forecast sounds reasonable, and is perhaps on the conservative side," he said.
The stakes are high for the tourism business on the Island.
There were 112,000 jobs in leisure and hospitality here, including those in the arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodations and food service, in March, up almost 5 percent from a year earlier, according to the federal statistics collected by the New York State Department of Labor.
Jobs in accommodations and food services, including restaurants and bars, account for more than 94,000 of the jobs and grew by 3.4 percent from March 2014 to this March. That number is likely to grow by another 17,000 jobs by June, the state labor department said.
The visitors bureau uses a more narrowly defined estimate for tourism-related jobs -- 74,000, including secondary jobs, based on a study done for Empire State Development, the state's primary business-aid agency.
The euro question
Experts anticipate tourism spending on Long Island will rise enough to overcome some areas of concern, including a gain of nearly 20 percent since a year ago in the dollar's value against the euro, which some executives say might discourage foreign visitors to New York.
And parts of Fire Island face a potential shortage of rooms because the largest inn there, the 65-room Grove Hotel in Cherry Grove, burned down in March.
Across the country, recent signs point to growing spending by consumers. Last month the U.S. Department of Commerce said consumer spending in March rose 0.4 percent from February, an increase that was the largest in four months.
Matejka hopes the lower year-over-year gas prices will encourage visits to Long Island by people living farther away than the usual 250-300-mile distance from which most LI tourists originate. "We're hoping we might draw from a broader audience," she said, including people from upstate, Pennsylvania, even Ohio. Regular gas averaged $2.914 on Long Island Friday, $1.03 less than a year earlier.
Nationally, the motorist group AAA is projecting the highest travel volume in 10 years for the Memorial Day weekend, with 37.2 million Americans planning a trip, almost nine in 10 of them by car.
At the 3,500-member Long Island Farm Bureau, administrative director Robert Carpenter said growers, including wineries and operators of an estimated 100 to 150 farm stands, are hoping for another good year. "People might have been able to save money over the wintertime from the cheaper gas and might have more [discretionary] income to go out and enjoy themselves," he said.
State parks and recreation officials anticipate a better summer on Long Island than last year if the weather cooperates, although construction will be underway at Field 6 and the West Bathhouse at Jones Beach, the main boathouse at Sunken Meadow State Park and a building at the campground at Wildwood State Park.
Growing park attendance
Last year's attendance of more than 19 million would have been stronger if temperatures had been warmer, said George Gorman Jr., deputy regional director of state parks. "It was a little cool," he said. Rain, of course, washes out attendance, and heat waves keep people at home with their air conditioners, he said.
Still, attendance last year at the Island's state parks and historic sites rose 16 percent from 2013's 16.7 million. Visits in 2013 were hurt by weather and leftover damage from superstorm Sandy. Park attendance had reached 18.9 million in 2012, 19.1 million in 2011 and 19.4 million in 2010.
At Adventureland Amusement Park in Farmingdale, operations manager Paul Gentile expects a new ride to boost attendance. The park's new 55-foot roller coaster has replaced the popular Hurricane coaster dating to 1991. "A new roller coaster usually brings quite a bit of interest," he said. The park doesn't disclose attendance figures. Weather is his biggest worry.
Island businesses that depend heavily on foreign visitors face a financial headwind from struggling foreign economies and a strong dollar, which may lead to a softening in international vacation traffic.
"Europe is in a bit of an economic rut -- Japan same thing -- and China, while doing well, also looks like it's having the slowest growth period since 1990," Matejka said.
The euro on Friday was worth $1.145, versus $1.370 a year ago. That makes travel in Europe less expensive for Americans, but Europeans are finding a trip to the United States more expensive now.
Some bookings are up
Still, strength in domestic travel can make up for foreign weakness. At the Southampton Inn, which gets foreign and domestic visitors, owner Dede Gotthelf said bookings are running 15 percent ahead of last year's; summer 2014 was one of the hotel's best seasons, with occupancy averaging 90 percent. "I think a more robust economy and lower gas prices have certainly pushed people to make the decision and come on out," she said.
She said 60 of the 90 guest rooms were redone over the winter with new soundproof ceilings, lighting, wall coverings, carpeting and furniture. The other 30 were done a year earlier, and there are plans to add 40 rooms in the fall. Rooms there start at $525 a night on summer weekends.
Visitors to 32-mile-long Fire Island, though, will have to make do this year without the Grove. The hotel's 65 rooms, including a penthouse and housing for staff, represented about half the rooms in Cherry Grove and 18 percent of Fire Island's total, according to the Suffolk County Planning & Environment Division.
Grove owner Frank Liguori said he hoped to begin reconstruction in October and reopen in time for next Memorial Day. The attached Ice Palace nightclub was relatively undamaged and will be open this summer. Still, he said, the temporary closure of the hotel will affect restaurants and bars that catered to its guests. "It's going to hurt the economy of our area of Fire Island," he said.
At a competing hotel in Cherry Grove, the 32-room Belvedere Guest House for Men, owner Craig Eberhardt said he was nearly sold out for the summer even before the Grove fire, and he now expects to have no vacancies at all. "It's going to affect us but not too much," he said.
Most people who come over on the ferries to Cherry Grove -- 2,000 to 4,000 a day on summer weekends -- don't stay overnight at hotels, he said. Those who aren't day-trippers and do stay overnight often bunk with friends.
Ken Stein, president of the Sayville Ferry Service, says the temporary closure of the Grove could cost him 3,000 customers this season who would have been overnight guests there. The percentage hit, though, will be small; he carries 2,000 to Cherry Grove on a good weekend day in summer.
Hoping for good weather
But he might not see a decline at all. "If we have beautiful sunny weather every weekend all summer long, we won't feel that loss, because we're going to have an awesome summer," he said.
The visitors bureau estimates 9.1 million people stayed overnight last year in Long Island's roughly 18,000 hotel rooms.
At another East End landmark, Gurney's Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa, general manager Michael Nenner said he expects at least a 5 percent increase in occupancy this year over last. The catalysts: extensive renovations to rooms, lobby and dining and drinking facilities over the past two years and a joint venture this year with LDV Hospitality, the Manhattan-based restaurant operator. LDV runs Scarpetta in the city and has locations in Las Vegas, Miami and Beverly Hills. LDV co-founder and principal John Meadow said food and beverage menus at Gurney's have been redesigned. "It's all brand new," he said. "New concepts across the board."
For Long Island as a whole, hotel occupancy rates this year through March are promising: Average occupancy rose 2.5 percent from the first quarter last year to 62.1 percent, according to STR Global, a travel data publisher.
"I think that's a good indicator that we're on the right track," said Matejka.
Long Island Tourism, by the numbers
5.6 billion: Total estimated travel and leisure revenues last year
112,000: Total employment in leisure and hospitality
48 percent of visitors come in the summer
22 percent in the spring
21 percent in autumn
and 9 percent in winter.
51 percent of visitors come here for family obligations. Other major reasons include going to beaches and shopping.
36 percent stay at least one night
41 percent of visitors reside in the New York City metropolitan area.
364: Long Island hotels, with a total of 18,289 rooms, including properties under construction.
SOURCES: Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, New York State Department of Labor, Suffolk County Planning & Environment Division.