Room At The Inn
County tourism still feeling the sting of El Ni& %s;o's wet lash.
Thursday, July 9, 1998
The "Little Boy"--aka El Nino--is still whipping the end of his rainy tail across the Monterey Peninsula, hitting the county''s $1.4 billion tourism industry right where it hurts--in the wallet.
In a coastal area dependent on good weather to lure visitors, this year''s heavy rains, which began the first week of February, have had a disastrous effect on hotels, restaurants, retail stores, recreational attractions and other tourist-oriented businesses, say tourism sources.
"We hear from all of them that this is one of the worst years they''ve seen," says Manette Belliveau, director of the Monterey Peninsula Visitors and Convention Bureau. "Weather has a direct correlation."
Tourism took a much harder hit than county agriculture from El Nino. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Monterey County ag has suffered $7.1 million in El Nino-related damage. That''s dwarfed by the $41 million in direct visitor spending losses reported just for the first quarter of 1998, according to Monterey County Travel and Tourism Alliance Executive Director Burke Pease.
While $41 million only represents 2.5 percent of last year''s total visitor spending, Pease says it is a "significant portion" of the three months'' usual tourist revenue. Even a small dip like that can deal a mortal blow to a small, family-owned business.
"For many businesses, that two and a half percent could be their profit for the year," Pease says. "You can''t make that up in the summer, because we operate at maximum capacity already. Our only opportunity to make it up is in the fall, so our promotional campaign will be foot-to-the-floor for this fall."
Pease hasn''t heard of any tourist-dependent businesses closing their doors yet this year because of El Nino, "but there''s a lot of restlessness," he says. People in the industry say many area hotels and restaurants had to lay off employees, although some have been rehired in anticipation of the usually busy summer season.
In general, notes Belliveau, Monterey suffered less than other Peninsula cities from weather-related tourism losses because so much of its hotel business draws upon conventions and other business-related guests--travel that takes place irrespective of sunshine. It''s the smaller hotels and businesses that are feeling the real pinch, she says.
Carmel''s tourist-generated revenue, as indicated by the Tourist Occupancy Tax collected, was down about 8 percent the first quarter of ''98, compared to the same three-month period last year. April, May and June were "very poor months" as well, Belliveau says.
"Big Sur was hurt the worst, obviously," she says, noting that Highway 1 was closed from Carmel to Big Sur from Feb. 4 until May 2. The formal reopening only took place in early June.
Everyone in the industry was looking forward to the Fourth of July weekend, traditionally the kick-off date to the summer season, as the first indication that recovery is nigh. While hard figures won''t be available for months, early anecdotal evidence suggests those hopes may have been premature.
"It was horrible," says Irene Michael, co-owner of the Lovers Point Inn in Pacific Grove for 31 years. "The worst Fourth of July we''ve ever had. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. This season has been a nightmare."
Michael says her business is down 25-30 percent from last year. She blames the media for a lot of it. "The weather people are telling us how bad things are here, and that keeps people out of the area," she charges. "They''re all going to Napa, Calistoga, St. Helena, and they''re not coming here. The wine country is up 25 percent."
Belliveau says that there were rooms available at just about every hotel, large or small. "It''s not what we expected from a major holiday weekend," she admits.
Lisa Bindel, manager of the Victorian Inn, two blocks up from Cannery Row, reports a 14 percent drop compared to last year''s Fourth of July weekend. "We sold a few more rooms this year, but it was last-minute travel, so we discounted a lot more," she says. "We were down about $3,400 from last year. It''s been difficult."
The Tickle Pink Inn in the Carmel Highlands, on the other hand, had a "great" weekend, according to assistant manager Christy Parker. "I know we were way down this year, but we definitely started to pick up about two weeks ago," she reports. "The phones have been ringing off the hook. But we''re not quite back to normal yet."
Down in Big Sur, where hotels and restaurants were closed to all but local traffic for three months, the mood is careful optimism.
Connie McCoy, night manager at the Big Sur River Inn, says the inn was closed entirely for three months, and offered only a $5 weekly dinner to locals "as a community service." Most of the employees laid off during the closure have been rehired, she says.
"It''s been great to have the road open," she continues. But the delays caused by construction crews are still hurting local business. "After standing in traffic for half an hour, by the time they get through, cars don''t like to stop again right away in Big Sur," she says.
Next door at the Heartbeat gift gallery, owner Theresa Bradford says business is back up, although not to ''97 levels. "But last year I did double the usual, so you can''t compare," she says. She took a $30,000 bank loan during the road closure, and has already paid back $10,000. And when her regular vendors heard of her troubles, they sent extra stock to her store and told her she could pay them at the end of the season. "So I''m all stocked up now, on good faith," she says.
Down the road at the Ventana Inn, restaurant manager Michael Campbell says business is off by about 25 percent. "We don''t know how much of that is El Nino publicity and how much is because of the road construction," he says. Foot traffic was still down "a little bit" on the Fourth of July weekend, he says, "but not as dramatically as earlier in the year." News reports of bad weather have hurt Big Sur unnecessarily, he maintains; "The weather is great down here, but a lot of people don''t know that, if they don''t know the area."
Hotels and restaurants disappointed with the Fourth of July have now set their sights on the rest of July and August, banking on the slew of special events that usually draw out-of-town crowds.
Irene Michael at the Lovers Point Inn says she''s hoping to draw business from this weekend''s Laguna Seca races and the Salinas horse show. "We''re expecting to have a good weekend, but what if the weather is bad again?" she muses.
"We''re projecting a very good summer," maintains Belliveau. "Will we recover what we''ve lost so far this year? That''s doubtful. But the rest of the year is looking strong."