Tourism season gets cracking on soggy holiday weekend

Donna Atkins of New York cracks open a claw from her second lobster dinner of the day Saturday at Mystic Seaport during the 28th annual Lobster Days benefit for the Mystic Rotary Club.
Donna Atkins of New York cracks open a claw from her second lobster dinner of the day Saturday at Mystic Seaport during the 28th annual Lobster Days benefit for the Mystic Rotary Club. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

Mystic - With a wind-driven drizzle threatening to send the mercury below 50, Saturday's installment of the merry month of May - the unofficial start of the summer tourism season - bore a striking resemblance to March.

Nowhere was the chill more evident than at Mystic Seaport, where the Mystic Rotary Club's annual Lobster Days event nevertheless catered to scores of hearty souls.

"It's been a challenging day," John Merkel, the club's vice president, said in the early afternoon. "The weatherman's been forecasting relatively bad weather for today, so a lot of people probably made other plans."

Musician Craig Edwards, who'd been booked to entertain a crowd, allowed that the cold was about to impair his banjo-strumming.

"I'm pretty tough, but this is getting near my limit," he said, flexing his fingers.

Though light, the turnout included Jack and Janis Solomon, a parka-clad East Hampton couple who enjoyed crustaceans, corn-on-the-cob and cole slaw. Jack, a Rotarian himself, said they'd won Lobster Days tickets in a silent auction at a recent Rotary conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The event continues from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and Monday - under brighter skies, if the forecast holds.

"Sunday will be warmer though still somewhat windy. Morning cloudiness will give way to sun," Andy Mussolini, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.com, said. "The big story is noticeable improvement by Monday."

Temperatures should climb into the 60s today and to near 70 Monday.

For the region's tourism operators, the Memorial Day weekend's inauspicious start likely did little to dampen expectations for the summer.

"The prospect for a strong (tourism) season that exceeds last year - which was good - is there," Ed Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District, said last week. "If the weather holds on weekends throughout the summer, we'll do great. Otherwise, it should still be a strong season."

The AAA expected a slight decrease in New Englanders' travel during the holiday weekend - Thursday through Monday - despite lower gasoline prices than a year ago. The association projected that 1.56 million people from the six New England states would travel at least 50 miles from home during the weekend, down 0.7 percent over the same period in 2012.

Nearly 1.42 million New England travelers planned to drive, a 0.1 percent increase over last year, while fewer than 120,000 were expected to fly, an 8.1 percent decline that the association attributed to higher air fares.

Heading into the weekend, the average price of gasoline in the state was $3.79 a gallon, compared to $3.73 a month earlier and $3.96 last Memorial Day weekend, when Connecticut ranked among the five states with the priciest gas in the country.

Sixty-two percent of travelers said gas prices would have no impact on their holiday travel plans, the association reported.

Dombroskas said he didn't expect gas prices to have much effect on the state's tourism business in the weeks ahead, unless they spike substantially.

"Until gas prices push in excess of $4 a gallon, they don't have a big impact on our markets," he said.

Dombroskas said he believes the region is better prepared for the tourism season than it's been in several years.

"There are more things happening," he said. "The infrastructure is in good shape and there's a lot of new programming."

The state's "Still Revolutionary" marketing campaign and the district's own efforts have succeeded in extending the reach of the region's attractions, Dombroskas said.

"We're getting a lot of new people who are interested in eastern Connecticut for the first time, so we've been sending out a lot of information," he said. "And it's not just Westchester (New York). We're hearing from western Massachusetts, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey."

The district has invested heavily in social media.

"We're discovering that more and more people are finding us through Facebook rather than Googling us. ... Significant inquiries are coming from mobile applications, which lend themselves more to social media," Dombroskas said.

One of the region's biggest events this summer promises to be the Seaport's July 21 relaunching of the Charles W. Morgan, the vintage whaling ship that's been undergoing a major overhaul since 2008. Documentary filmmaker Rick Burns will deliver the keynote address, and the U.S. Coast Guard Band will perform at the event, which a number of dignitaries are expected to attend.

"It's been getting a lot of attention. We've been getting a lot of calls about it," Dan McFadden, the Seaport's director of communications, said.

Next weekend, more than 150 uniformed Civil War re-enactors will encamp on the Seaport grounds, carry out infantry drills and artillery demonstrations and march in a dress parade. The Naval Encampment is a one-time event.

Overall, attendance at the Seaport was down slightly last year, although paid visits were about the same as the year before, according to McFadden.

"We hope to build on that," he said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

Musician Craig Edwards tries to keep his fingers warm while performing Saturday duing the 28th annual Lobster Days at Mystic Seaport to benefit the Mystic Rotary Club.
Musician Craig Edwards tries to keep his fingers warm while performing Saturday duing the 28th annual Lobster Days at Mystic Seaport to benefit the Mystic Rotary Club. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo
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