2009-04-23 / News

Local economic forecasts predict healthy summer

By Tyler Will

While a global money crisis has people tightening their budgets, Newport County's diverse tourism industry will preserve a steady cash flow this summer if there is good weather, officials say.

Newport Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Evan Smith, a Jamestowner, said Newport County has a geographical advantage and tourism strength that will attract local travelers.

Many families will forego European vacations or long-distance trips to places like Hawaii, and will instead take a day trip to Newport.

"We go into this difficult year more poised to survive than many destinations," Smith said. "We'll have to wait and see how the season unfolds, and we'll need a little help from Mother Nature with the weather."

A good sign of the upcoming tourist season is the Newport Mansions, which are the number one attraction of the area, Smith said. Despite the global economic conditions, attendance at the mansions is about 3 percent higher than it was this time last year, Smith said.

Keith Stokes, executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, said people are restricting their spending and many will consequently travel locally. About three-quarters of Newport's tourist population are travelers who come for a single day, Stokes said.

Newport County has an edge on the day tripping market because many events are planned on weekends. Rhode Island's location also makes it convenient for New York and Boston travelers, Stokes said. He said about 3.5 million people visit Newport every year.

Smith said Newport County offers a wide range of activities that are appealing to summer travelers.

"Newport and Newport County are very diverse, they're rich in architecture, in history, in nature," Smith said. "There are so many different reasons people like to travel here."

Smith said travelers can golf, fish, go sight-seeing and beach hopping, or dine out. Newport County's activities aren't as interest specific as cities like Las Vegas, which is attractive for its gambling, he said.

Smith pointed out that 30 million people live within four hours of Newport County, or about 10 percent of the American population. He also acknowledged that many families will forego longdistance vacations and travel locally.

He said the geographical and tourism strength of Newport County make it a tempting location for local travelers.

Smith said there are seven aspects of tourism, all of which are readily available in Newport County. Among them are lodging, attractions, shopping, dining, recreation, transportation and events.

Weddings are also a large part of the Newport County economy. Smith said there were 1,200 weddings last calendar year in the six towns comprising Newport County. He said that market will also help the local economy stay "recession proof."

"The popularity of Newport County as a wedding place has grown significantly," Smith said. "A huge wedding base is a reason why we'll be able to weather the storm."

Stokes and Smith both acknowledged that weather has a huge impact on the tourism outcome.

Smith said poor weather forecasts can spike the amount of hotel cancellations, which can cost millions of dollars per weekend. Stokes said the Chamber of Commerce receives tens of thousands of weather inquiries each season.

"That impacted us greatly, more so than the national economy or taxes or parking [problems], and other things that we hear about," Stokes said.

Smith said travel booking has also changed dramatically over time. He said about 20 years ago, families would usually make summer travel plans about a year in advance. Today, he said, families will plan trips only a couple of months in advance.

This is because travelers are afraid of losing their jobs, and will wait until the last minute to make sure they still have a job and enough money to go on vacation, he said.

The local traveling effect even works with Newport County residents, Smith said. Instead of going to New York City for a weekend, he said local residents may decide to cross the bridge for an evening in Newport at one of the city's high-end restaurants.

"Dining will do well because there will be people who are still going to want to, if you will, pamper themselves," Smith said.

Because of this residential effect, Smith said meal and beverage sales may be higher this season than last season.

While Smith said dining will likely do well, he said stores will probably have the hardest time.

"Shopping is an area where they can exercise certain restraint and budget," he said, pointing out that hotel costs are fairly fixed and travelers typically accept them. But while shopping, travelers can exercise a lot more control over their wallets.

But Smith said retailers are ready to handle the challenge. He said that retailers are aggressively offering deals and products at affordable prices, and they're being "very creative and proactive in presenting value."

Because of its strengths, Stokes said the decline is not likely to be large, but more specific predictions are too difficult to make.

"I don't know if anyone has a crystal ball, it's hard to predict," Stokes said.

Smith said the Convention and Visitors Bureau gets about 80 percent of its funds from May to October.

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