Funding setbacks aside, tourism industry eager for a season in the sun
Relatively cheap gas prices, the prospect of better weather than we've seen this spring and a reputed uptick in consumer confidence all bode well for southeastern Connecticut’s summer tourism season, experts say.
But, they add, there are caveats.
Getting the word out about all the region has to offer has gotten harder. And the competing messages from neighboring markets have gotten louder.
“As of yesterday, the $8.3 million the governor proposed is still intact,” Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said Friday. But he noted that, even if that allotment for statewide tourism promotion survives the legislature’s fraught budget process, it won’t be enough to buy TV air time.
Tourism departments in neighboring states, meanwhile, have been flooding Connecticut with advertising, as viewers of prime-time television can attest. Stephen Tagliatela, president of the Connecticut Tourism Coalition, told lawmakers in April that New York has increased its tourism-promotion budget to $69.5 million. Rhode Island and Massachusetts also have boosted their commitments to the cause.
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In its June newsletter, the coalition, an alliance of more than 100 representatives of various sectors of the tourism industry, urged members to keep contacting their legislators in regard to the importance of tourism funding. The group’s position is that the General Assembly should establish a dedicated source of such funding, preferably a percentage of the revenue generated by the state’s hotel occupancy tax.
Another possibility is the Senate-approved version of a bill enabling the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to develop a casino in East Windsor, which calls for 10 percent of the proposed facility’s table-games revenue to be set aside for tourism.
Ed Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District, still holds out hope that state funding for his agency — eliminated a year ago — will be restored for the 2018 fiscal year that starts July 1.
“We’re still answering phone calls from prospective visitors, and we’re continuing to post ideas and stories on social media to stimulate visitation,” he said Friday. “At the macro level, it’s true that people are eager to travel, but on the micro level there are some problems ahead. It is very difficult for people to get specific information about activities. We’re getting hundreds of requests we can’t fulfill. People are planning weddings, meetings, et cetera, and we simply don’t have the capability to respond.”
Without funding for TV time, billboards and printed material, online advertising is carrying the freight, making Connecticut attractions vulnerable to out-of-state competition.
“If we equal last year, we’ll be doing well,” Dombroskas said. “I don’t see this as a record-breaking summer.”
Asked which attractions show special promise, he cited the Thames River Heritage Park’s water taxi service between Groton and New London, which launched its second season a week ago, and the return of Sabino, the Mystic Seaport steamboat that’s been undergoing a yearslong restoration. Plans call for Sabino to lead the museum's annual Antique & Classic Boat parade July 23 and resume carrying passengers Aug. 1, according to Dan McFadden, the museum's director of communications.
Mystic Seaport also announced this past week that starting June 30, a reconstructed Viking longship will be open for public tours.
In addition, Mystic Aquarium has a new exhibit, Weird & Wonderful, just in time for the season, and the usual masses are expected to descend on Mystic to patronize its shops and restaurants.
How the weather holds up on the 14 weekends between now and Labor Day will go a long way in determining how successful the season is for tourism operators. Having accurately predicted that April and May “will be rainier than normal” in the Northeast, The Old Farmer’s Almanac calls for a summer officially starting June 21 that’s “cooler and rainier than normal.” The Fourth of July might be “a tad wet” in New England, the venerable publication says.
At this point, gas prices don’t figure to be an issue.
“We’ve seen really strong supplies, which has kept prices down,” said Amy Parmenter, a spokeswoman for AAA in Connecticut. “Prices will go up, but the question for Connecticut is really about the $3-a-gallon benchmark. It’s unlikely that we would reach that.”
Late last week, the average price of a gallon of unleaded in Connecticut overall and in the New London-Norwich area in particular was $2.52, about six cents higher than a year ago when it was the lowest in a long time, Parmenter said.
While gas prices are relatively low, the cost of hotels, rentals and airfares are up, which can work to Connecticut’s advantage given its close proximity to Northeast population centers, she said.
Clam shacks, chocolate, wine
A trend that bodes well for Connecticut tourism is travelers’ interest in food.
“Culinary travel is growing, especially among the younger travelers,” Parmenter said. “They don’t just want to see, they want to do — and for a lot of them food is part of the experience. Cooking classes, farm-to-table dining, things like that.”
Connecticut’s Office of Tourism is well aware of the trend; its website, www.ctvisit.com, provides a link to “Culinary Adventures.” From there, travelers can browse “Mystic Country Clam Shacks & Food Stands,” including Captain Scott’s Lobster Dock in New London, and groupings of chocolate purveyors (Chocolate Shell, Old Lyme), coffee shops (Muddy Waters, New London), vineyards (Preston Ridge Vineyard, Preston) and microbreweries (Outer Light Brewing Co., Groton).
Destinations unto themselves, southeastern Connecticut’s casinos are equipped to handle their own marketing, and both Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino have been promoting new options in recent weeks.
Mohegan Sun introduced the outdoor Bean and Vine Terrace at its Earth Tower hotel a week ago and is expected to unveil outdoor cabanas at the newly renovated pool in its Sky Tower this weekend. Barrett-Jackson’s Northeast Auction of collector cars, an event that set Mohegan Sun Arena attendance records last year, returns June 21-24 and includes a full week of related activities. A New England food truck festival is scheduled for Sept. 2-3.
Foxwoods, which announced last month that it had added a half-dozen “skill-based” slots machines to its gaming floor, announced plans Friday to debut its “HighFlyer” zip line as well as “other developments” this summer. The zip line, first mentioned more than a year ago, is to extend from the roof of the casino’s 350-foot Fox Tower down to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. Riders will reach speeds approaching 60 mph along the 3,700-foot run.
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