Beach season salvaged after Sandy

Staff Writer

Shore businesses are faring better than expected this summer, despite the multibillion-dollar blow dealt by superstorm Sandy.

A blend of hard work, innovation and advertising has brought tourists and entrepreneurs another memorable season in Monmouth and Ocean counties, according to local business leaders.

The risk of a slow season carried heavy implications due to the role that beachside businesses play in the tourism industry. In 2012, the tourism sector in New Jersey reeled in about $35 billion, making up 7 percent of the state economy, according to a study by Tourism Economics. “Most of what I’ve been hearing is that there is a good feeling about the tourism industry going into the mid part of the summer now,” said Ben Waldron, executive director of Monmouth-Ocean Development Council. “The general perception is that we should be able to salvage a decent season out of this for the rest of the summer, weather permitting.”

 Above: Bartender Patrick Lawlor chats with a customer on July 18 at Connolly Station in Belmar. The tavern has put up solid numbers this summer, despite concerns as to how superstorm Sandy would affect the Shore tourism industry. Left: Beachgoers take a stroll along Belmar’s boardwalk.  PHOTOS BY STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR Above: Bartender Patrick Lawlor chats with a customer on July 18 at Connolly Station in Belmar. The tavern has put up solid numbers this summer, despite concerns as to how superstorm Sandy would affect the Shore tourism industry. Left: Beachgoers take a stroll along Belmar’s boardwalk. PHOTOS BY STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR So far, vacationers have taken to the Shore in droves on weekends, like they did in years prior to the storm, said Lynda Rose, president of the Eastern Monmouth Area Chamber of Commerce. Weekdays, though, have seen a decline in the number of visitors, Rose said.

Lena Lowe, who owns the Belmar-based cupcake and candy shop Sweet!, said her customer base has stuck to that trend. The lack of midweek foot traffic hurts sales, but her bottom line is on the uptick, Lowe said.

“We’re starting to get some of our regular crowd coming back and some people from the city, but it’s not like it was last year,” Lowe said. “It’s picking up now, but it’s coming back slowly.”

Whether they are trekking to the beach out of curiosity or tradition, travelers seem to have become more eager to spend time and money in coastal communities as the summer has progressed, Rose said.

“People who have been here for years are also very loyal to the area,” she said. “They still have been coming down to see if the same place is available or to find a new place in the same community.”

Good weather is crucial to drawing more people to the coast, and a rainy June steered many tourists away, Waldron said.

The volatility of the weather also resulted in shorter stays for those visiting the Shore as summer got underway.

“We know that on nice days when it’s warm out, people come down. They’re coming down for day trips,” said Bob Hilton, executive director of the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Initially, the overnight stays were down. They are down, but I think it’s weather-related.”

To grab a piece of the pie, business owners must retool their practices, Rose said. That could mean the execution of a new seating layout or a drop in prices.

At Annie’s Ocean Grill on Belmar’s boardwalk, owner David Marola had to adapt to serving food out of a 192-squarefoot trailer after he lost his 2,400-squarefoot restaurant in the storm. Marola said the adjustment will be enough to keep the eatery afloat until next summer, when he will return his operation to a building.

“I’m optimistic. Just keep us with some good weather and we’ll be fine,” Marola said.

Tourism at the Shore hinges on the availability of weekly rental units, from bungalows and hotel rooms to sprawling oceanfront homes. Early this year, some thought the damages incurred by those dwellings would be too vast to overcome in a matter of months.

Two real estate agents contacted for this story said 70 to 80 percent of the rental units that they oversee are able to lodge guests. Judy Appleby, a member of the board of directors for the New Jersey Association of Realtors, said that figure is a welcome step forward.

“All in all, I would say that if our occupancy is 70 to 75 percent of last year, that we will have done well, considering the damage in many areas in Monmouth and Ocean counties, as well as the perception of damage for New Jersey as a whole,” said Appleby, who rents units out of an office in Seaside Park.

Sandy’s wrath came with a silver lining that could entice a greater number of renters to plant their umbrellas at the beach, said William C. Darby, who manages a Weichert office on Long Beach Island.

“That house that has been rented for 15 years and has been showing its age, for lack of a better term, is all brand-new inside,” Darby said.

While the LBI office has fewer units available this year, it has benefited from the leasing of higher-end rental homes, Darby said.

The positive outlook followed several unnerving months. As people remained wary of the condition of the Jersey Shore, many dodged making vacation decisions until recently.

“The early part of the summer was quiet in town, with very few rentals, but we expect that they’ll fill up on July 20 and stay full through Aug. 24, with the last week of August looking lighter,” Appleby said. “Many of our tenants have driven down to see the area before committing themselves to a rental, so many reservations have been made for the later weeks of summer.”

The state’s $25 million “Stronger Than the Storm” marketing campaign served to strengthen public perception of the area, Waldron said. However, it could have been more effective if the state had launched the initiative earlier, he said.

Although people from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania now understand that the Shore is ready to accommodate vacationers, the delay in sending the message fatally wounded some businesses, Waldron said.

“Unfortunately, some of the smaller businesses in the waterfront areas and tourism areas weren’t able to hang on long enough,” he said. “Some of them have closed, and they might not open again.”

Mark Farrell, the restaurateur who owns Connolly Station in Belmar and Farrell’s Stout & Steak in Point Pleasant Beach, kicked off his own grassroots advertising effort to avoid a similar fate. Both places also offer “aggressive” nightly specials and affordable dishes to combat the effects of Sandy and the slowly recovering state of the economy, Farrell said.

It is unclear whether the number of outof town patrons who frequent Farrell’s restaurants slumped this summer, but customer morale and spending are in good shape, he said.

“We can fill the place with bodies, but if they’re not happy, it’s worthless. If they come in and I see smiles on their faces and they’re enjoying the music, food, bartenders and servers, then I know it’s a successful night,” Farrell said. “I’m seeing a lot more of that this year than I have in years past.”

Despite lingering obstacles, the Jersey Shore proved resilient in its fight to heal after Sandy, Waldron said. Barring any future catastrophes, the region’s tourism sector will only improve with time, he said.

“One of the issues that we have to be cautious of is not to think that this is going to bring us back to normalcy in a one-year cycle,” Waldron said. “… This may take us more than 12 to 18 months to get back to normal business. But I would say that we’re probably ahead of the curve compared to where we anticipated we might be.”