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An up-and-down summer for local hospitality industry

By Jeffrey A. Johnson

Publication: The Day

Published August 08. 2011 4:00AM   Updated August 08. 2011 3:02PM

Last month, The Inn at Harbor Hill Marina opened the Captain Clark House, a remodeled Victorian home that allowed the Niantic bed and breakfast to expand from nine to 15 rooms.

So far, guests have raved about the new perks - cozy king-sized beds, large soaking tubs and private balconies - and the inn, which is popular for its waterfront views, has been booked since the new addition opened on July 1.

Still, a listless economy has been tough on the region's hospitality businesses, and The Inn at Harbor Hill Marina is no exception.

"This year initially was a much slower start from last year, and we weren't sure why," said Pam Crandall, an innkeeper at Harbor Hill for the past eight years. "You discuss those things: What do you think is happening? Some of it was people being unsure if they were in a position to take a vacation."

Other local innkeepers and bed and breakfast owners shared similar sentiments Sunday. They said rising utility costs and the state's lack of tourism planning have also hurt the hospitality industry in these tough economic times.

The Inn at Lower Farm in North Stonington has booked about the same number of guests as last year, said Mary Wilska, who has owned and operated the bed and breakfast with her husband, Jon, for 10 years.

The restored 1740 farmhouse has seen an influx of foreign travelers, who have capitalized on favorable currency exchange rates, Wilska said, although fewer families have visited since the recession took hold.

"Two years ago was probably the worst year … and then it went up last year and it kind of just flat-lined as far as the numbers," she said. "I think people are looking more for bargains - for discounts and packages and things like that."

Michael Cardillo Jr., the innkeeper of the Old Mystic Inn, said his business has increased this year, but he wonders where he'll be by year's end because of rising utilities costs and other increases.

He spoke fondly of entertaining a young couple who got engaged over the weekend, but he said it often feels like his business takes two steps forward and three steps back.

"It's a big change from when I first bought it, obviously. Business is a lot different today than it was," said Cardillo, who bought his inn in 1999 and charges about $200 a night on the weekends. "There's a lot of hotels out there. More bed and breakfasts. Some have closed and the casinos are in the area. Sometimes I think it's more challenging than in past years."

The owners of Another Second Penny Inn in Stonington also have found it a challenging - and perplexing - year.

Sandra Wright, who owns the inn with her husband, Jim, said July was the most successful month the couple has experienced since opening nine years ago. But August is looking bleak, despite rates of $149 to $189 a night.

"Everybody I talked to is saying the same thing. It's very uneven. It's very up and down," said Wright, who also said the state's lack of strategic long term tourism plan has hindered hospitality businesses. "It's feast or famine. We'll float along for a couple of weeks and the phone won't ring for a month."

Crandall also pointed out that several of the patrons at the Inn at Harbor Hill Marina have traveled from within the state. They chose to save on fuel costs and travel expenses by staying closer to home.

She also said that many of the guests are shortening their stays. They're not giving up entirely on vacations.

"We've had guests say, 'You know there's one thing I need and it's to get away to recharge my batteries,'" she said. "People are still trying as hard as they can to get away. They're still trying to make that happen."

jeff.johnson@theday.com

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