Number of summer tourists increased, but spending fell flat

Heath Horn of Noank makes a running save during a game of beach volleyball with visiting college students at Esker Point Beach in Groton on Sunday. Teammate Vivian Bratone of Munich, Germany, looks on.
Heath Horn of Noank makes a running save during a game of beach volleyball with visiting college students at Esker Point Beach in Groton on Sunday. Teammate Vivian Bratone of Munich, Germany, looks on. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo

Warm weather combined with a multimillion-dollar statewide advertising campaign, increased social-media outreach and the popular Titanic exhibit at Mystic Aquarium has attracted more visitors to the region this year than in 2011, local tourism officials say.

Tourism spending was another matter, however, as some lodging facilities, restaurants and retail stores reported slight decreases in sales or rates.

"People are tending to look for value," said Ed Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District. "If there's a hallmark of the summer season, that's been it."

It's what Peter Glankoff, the aquarium's senior vice president of marketing and public affairs, calls "the last $10 problem."

"People come through and pay admission and then they stop," he said.

Glankoff said it's not as bad now as when the Great Recession was more acute, but tight-fisted spending still hangs over the local tourism market.

Still, Dombroskas said statistics he has seen show attendance at attractions statewide are up about 6 percent so far this year. Summer visitation hit a slow patch in July, officials said, when extremely hot and humid weather may have kept people away, but August saw a rebound, despite escalating gasoline prices.

"Things are not dramatically up, but they're getting better," said Tricia Cunningham, president of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce. "It's a good sign for the future."

"We've had a good year," said Glankoff of the aquarium.

Visits to the aquarium are up about 15 percent so far this year, though increases for the summer are not quite as strong as during the beginning of the year because it takes much larger numbers to move the needle, Glankoff said. Attendance increases have ranged monthly from 6 percent to 27 percent.

"We're seeing a higher percentage of first-time visitors," Glankoff added.

Mystic Seaport reported attendance increases of only about 1 percent since its fiscal year began in May. But spokesman Dan McFadden said August has been strong and should lead to some impressive increases over last year, considering the last week of 2011 was severely affected by Tropical Storm Irene, which was downgraded from a hurricane shortly before hitting Connecticut.

"The lack of a hurricane this year will be very helpful," he said.

David Sugrue, general manager of Ocean Beach in New London, said attendance keeps getting better ever year as long as the weather holds up. This year, things started with a bang on Memorial Day as attendance doubled from 2011, June attendance was up 38 percent from the year before, and while July saw a slight dropoff Sugrue expected August to more than make up for it.

The park, which features family entertainment every day except Sunday and contains a waterslide and kiddie spray park, has drawn from both locals and tourists, helped along by exposure on the Mystic visitors site www.mystic.org.

"We're part of the whole Mystic draw," Sugrue said.

While visits to major Mystic attractions were up, some downtown merchants said 2012 wasn't a terrific year.

Rachel Sumner, director of sales and marketing for the S&P Oyster Company restaurant in downtown that greets an estimated 200,000 customers every year, said foot traffic has been down this summer. And while spending per check is up 8 percent so far this season, she said, overall sales are down almost 1 percent and people are ordering lower-priced menu items.

"People are really looking for value," Sumner said. "How can I stretch my buck?"

Similarly, owner Cathie McHugh of Stonewear Clothing on Main Street said sales are down from last year, as people opt for less expensive accessories and jewelry rather than the higher-priced clothing.

Lodging facilities in the region are reporting favorable numbers so far this year, with some properties during certain months recording double-digit gains in occupancy, according to Rob Winchester, president of the Waterford Hotel Group. But Scott Barlow, general manager of three lodging facilities in Mystic managed by the Waterford Group, said rates for his properties have tended to be slightly down to flat this summer.

Still, the occupancy rates for the Comfort Inn, Whitehall Mansion and Residence Inn by Marriott that he manages have been consistently in the high 80 percent to high 90 percent all summer, Barlow said.

"We had an outstanding summer," he added. "Traffic has been very steady."

Dombroskas, the regional tourism official, said interest in the region partially has been driven by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's decision to appropriate $27 million over a two-year period to put Connecticut back on the map of New England tourism. Tourism advertising had been essentially zeroed-out in former Gov. M. Jodi Rell's budget, but now the region has been spending to spread the word about local attractions in traditionally strong markets such as Worcester and Springfield, Mass., Philadelphia and New Jersey, said Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.

"We have instantly seen an effect," Dombroskas said. "It's driving inquiries up - not only ours, but all across the state."

Inquiries to the Mystic tourism site are well ahead of last year, he said, in the 20 percent to 30 percent range.

And spending to upgrade social-media marketing has led to a 700 percent increase in Facebook followers for state tourism promotion, he added. Followers that numbered below 2,000 last year have risen to almost 15,000 this year, Dombroskas said, as people look beyond advertising to find out from others what a Connecticut vacation experience feels like.

"It starts to link us with other major attractions and makes our visibility much higher," he said.

Dombroskas said he expects the fall season to continue an upward trend in local visits as the tourism district begins marketing more to couples rather than families. Among the promotions being prepared are a brochure to boost antiques traveling and others highlighting unusual local food experiences and pet-friendly places to visit and stay.

Dombroskas said the state tourism campaign has helped drive more visits to the area, but he expects the effect hasn't yet been fully appreciated because it started only this past June.

"We've seen a good effect from the campaign this year," he said, "but I don't think we've seen all that it's going to do."

l.howard@theday.com

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