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Tourist time: LI businesses, experts see strong season ahead

George Filopoulos, president of Gurney's Montauk Resort &

George Filopoulos, president of Gurney's Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa, anticipates an improved summer season. "People seem to be allocating more time and resources now toward the experience of life," he says. "They're spending less time shopping but more time traveling." Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Long Island should have a strong tourist season this summer, as a healthy economy offsets a possible decline in foreign visitors, travel and leisure experts and businesses said.

Long Islanders and visitors are expected to spend about $5.5 billion this year, as much as they spent last year, on lodging, restaurant meals, visits to beaches, parks, wineries, resorts, amusement parks, museums and other attractions, according to Discover Long Island, the tourism-promoting agency formerly called the Long Island Convention & Visitors Bureau and Sports Commission.

The stock market’s rise since the November election, and low unemployment rates nationally and locally — 4 percent on Long Island in March — should help tourism, experts said.

Gasoline prices remain relatively low, though higher than last year. Regular averaged $2.523 a gallon Friday on Long Island, up 10.7 cents from a year earlier.

Consumer confidence in March was at its highest level in more than 10 years on Long Island and in New York City and its northern suburbs, according to a survey by the Siena College Research Institute. April figures are not yet available.

“I think 2017 is going to be a year when we look back and say, ‘Wow, that was some year,’ ” said George Filopoulos, president of Gurney’s Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa, one of the largest hotels on the East End.

John Rizzo, chief economist of the Long Island Association, the Island’s major business group, is an optimist about the coming season, although he offered no specific forecast.

“It’s not a slam dunk,” he said, “but I think the positives outweigh the negatives.”

Tourism is a key industry here. The leisure and hospitality sector employed 118,800 in April, up 1,400 from a year earlier, according to the New York State Department of Labor. That number is expected to rise as seasonal help is hired. At its peak in August last year, leisure and hospitality employed 139,400.

Discover Long Island says 48 percent of visitors come to the Island in the summer, 22 percent in the spring, 21 percent in autumn, and 9 percent in winter.

Tourism spending on Long Island has grown a cumulative 22.5 percent from $4.4 billion in 2009, the last year of the recession, Discover Long Island said.

The growth here has been slower than in almost every other region in the state, according to a report done in February for Discover Long Island by Tourism Economics, a unit of English forecasting firm Oxford Economics. Revenue grew by 46 percent in New York City during that period, the state’s biggest increase.

“Right now we’re pacing last year,” said Kristen Jarnagin, president and chief executive of Discover Long Island. “Without an increase in [new attractions] or promotional spending, we’re not going to see any major spike.”

Mostly Northeasterners

Visitors to Long Island tend to be mostly from the Northeast — accounting for about 64 percent of the total, according to a survey for Discover Long Island by RUF Strategic Solutions, marketing consultants.

International visitors comprise just 7 percent of the total, RUF said, based on requests to Discover Long Island for printed brochures.

But international visitors are important beyond their numbers. “Their average itinerary is for 14 days. They spend a lot of time here and spend a lot of money,” Jarnagin said.

Increased scrutiny of foreign passengers at ports of entry could discourage some international visitors, experts said.

“They don’t know what’s going to happen when they get to customs, said Jarnagin, noting the “uncertainty” they face. “Are they going to be hassled in any way? And if they do come, [will] they be able to get home?”

Another unknown is the weather, which is a perennial swing factor for travel and leisure businesses.

Last year, an overcast Fourth of July, a stormy Labor Day weekend, and a season one week shorter than a year earlier — due to the timing of Memorial Day and Labor Day — restrained attendance growth at Long Island’s state parks, beaches, historic sites and campgrounds, state parks officials said.

Attendance rose 2 percent over 2015’s total, to 12.5 million, well short of the 18 percent gain in 2015 over 2014.

Weather permitting, “attendance will be up” this year, said George Gorman, deputy regional state parks director, though he didn’t give an estimate.

Long Island’s state parks hire about 1,400 seasonal workers each year, almost all local residents, Gorman said. Most are high school and college students.

At Splish Splash in Calverton, general manager Mike Bengston said he expects to have about 1,000 seasonal employees on board by Memorial Day weekend, when the water park opens for the season. Most will be foreign students, here on nonimmigrant J-1 visas for people on work-study programs in the United States.

The 96-acre attraction employs about 15 people year-round and is Long Island’s largest amusement park, with an attendance of about 500,000 people per season, as estimated by the Themed Entertainment Association of Burbank, California. The park doesn’t disclose attendance figures.

Bengston expects a good summer — but he isn’t forecasting increased revenue, despite improvements such as rebuilt cabanas.

“Assuming the weather cooperates, we’re looking for a great year,” he said. As for growth, he said, “You never know, but we hope we’ve continued to improve the guest experience.”

At the 90-room Southampton Inn, one of the largest on the South Fork, owner Dede Gotthelf also expects to at least match last July and August’s occupancy rates of 90 percent and 96.8 percent.

“Last summer was awesome,” she said. “We would hope to do as well.”

The Southampton Inn employs 35 people year-round and adds about 40 for the summer season. Gotthelf said she depends mostly on local citizens to supply her staff needs now because the J-1 program she used before has become less reliable in recent years, with some visas not granted in a timely manner.

Hotelier expects good year

At Gurney’s, Filopoulos’ forecast for 2017 is bullish. He said that, with 146 rooms and 20 single-family residences, Gurney’s is the largest hotel on the East End. It employs about 400 people year-round, almost all local residents.

Summer occupancy at Gurney’s reached middle and upper 90 percent rates last year. So far this year, occupancy rates are surpassing those of the spring of 2016. Filopoulos projects an 85 percent rate for May, up from 74 percent a year ago.

“I think there’s a little more confidence in the economy,” Filopoulos said, “but people also seem to be allocating more time and resources now toward the experience of life. They’re spending less time shopping but more time traveling.”

Long Island hotels averaged 62.7 percent occupancy in January, February and March this year, down slightly from 63.4 percent a year earlier, according to Discover Long Island.

Filopoulos said his guests are tending to stay longer, spending five or more nights. “I think people are using Gurney’s as perhaps a replacement for summer rentals they would have booked in previous years,” he said.

Some visitors to Long Island are using lodging arranged through the website of the San Francisco-based internet company Airbnb. It matches owners of private houses, apartments or single rooms or operators of bed-and-breakfasts and economy hotels, all for relatively short terms. Airbnb is the largest among several such internet-based services, with about 3 million listings worldwide.

Company spokesman Peter Schottenfels said in an email that Airbnb had 500 listings in Southampton Town, 800 in East Hampton Town and 50 in Southold.

The company announced in January that its Long Island guest arrivals grew by 58 percent last year from a year earlier, to 74,000. Long Island has about 19,000 hotel rooms.

Nationally, competition from Airbnb is affecting the hotel industry, experts said, but the local impact isn’t clear.

At one of the East End’s largest hotels, the 100-room Hyatt Place Long Island/East End in Riverhead, general manager Steve Shauger said: “Last year we were close to being sold out almost every day in July and August. I expect a continuation of that this year. If anything [Airbnb] is probably impacting” spring and fall.

Long Island’s 57 wineries, which welcome more than a million visitors a year, also expect a strong season. At their trade group, the Long Island Wine Council in Riverhead, executive director Ali Tuthill said she expected at least a repeat of 2016. “We had a very strong [summer] season and saw steady traffic through the holiday season and a dramatic pickup this March and April,” she said. The wineries produce about 500,000 cases a year, she said.

At Pindar Vineyards in Peconic, marketing director Melissa Martin said it expects at least a repeat of last year’s strong summer season. Good weather and new tours of the winery’s production facilities boosted visitors and wine sales.

This year, the company’s website has been redesigned. “We’re very confident that we will actually match if not improve on visitors this year given everything we have in place,” she said.

Last year was a banner year for the Island’s estimated 5,500 to 6,000 restaurants, with about a 10 percent increase in revenue, said Mario Saccente, executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association’s 500-member Long Island chapter. The association did not disclose a full revenue estimate.

Weather helped, exec says

Good weather, with little rain, contributed to the gain, especially at restaurants with outdoor seating, he said.

“Assuming the weather is good, I expect this year to be the same,” he said.

At Eastern Long Island Kampground in Greenport on the North Fork, co-owner Donna Goldstein said she also expects another good year, and she isn’t very worried about bad weather. Her 186 sites are paid for months in advance.

The campground also offers indoor activities in its recreation room. The campground hires 12 to 15 people for the season, all local residents, many of them retirees, Goldstein said.

“We’ve already sold out — obviously — for Memorial Day, but 80 percent for July 4 and 80 percent for Labor Day,” she said.

Last year was a good one for the farm stands, said Robert Carpenter, administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, a 3,500-member trade group based in Calverton. “Hopefully, 2017 will be a great season, but it is starting out a little slow because of the cool weather,” he said.

Officials at the New York State Hospitality & Tourism Association in Albany said upstate vacation destinations such as Lake George are concerned about the availability of foreign seasonal workers due to political disputes over the H-2B guest worker visas.

But the association has heard almost nothing from Long Island businesses. “Nobody ever brought it up,” said membership chairman Ryan Burke, who had a series of recent meetings with local businesses.

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