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End of summer sizzles in the Valley; forecasting fall is tough

Economy still plays a big part in tourism, but the news is not bad

Zeb's General Store in North Conway Village was one of many Valley businesses to report a very successful Labor Day Weekend. Rachael Brown.
September 17, 2009
Tai Freligh, communications manager for the New Hampshire Department of Travel and Tourism, says the traffic through New Hampshire tolls was up slightly — a half percent up on Monday and one and half percent increase on Saturday of the Labor Day weekend.

"Being up is an excellent sign, better than expected and a great way to close summer and a great kick start for fall," says Freligh.

The sun, the moon and the stars were all aligned for Labor Day. It was the perfect storm — Labor Day was late, the economy seemed to be showing signs of slight improvement, the stock market has been rallying, and the weather spoke for itself — absolutely perfect.

Marti Mayne, publicist for the Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, reported that spending in the valley was up for 64.3 percent of the chamber members as compared to Labor Day weekend in 2008.

Here's what lodging, restaurants and retail businesses in the Mt Washington Valley had to say.

Slow start

Labor Day weekend began slowly. If Friday night occupancy was any indicator of what was to be, businesses would have been disappointed.

"Friday looked like a Wednesday, until Saturday," says Elaine DiRusso, co-owner of the eight-room Wyatt House Country Inn Bed and Breakfast in North Conway. Wyatt says that guests were making reservations last minute. The numbers for the inn were down one third on Friday and then by Saturday the weekend was sold out.

"We had a two-night minimum stay which we lifted on Thursday, and we were able to fill rooms here and there. Overall, we had a pretty good weekend and were ahead of last year," she says.

The Eagle Mountain House and Golf Club in Jackson had a similar experience.

"People don't travel on Friday nights any more," says Jerry Jacobson, general manager, of the Eagle Mountain House. "Guests arrive on Saturday for an early 11 a.m. check in," he says. Jacobson adds that their numbers were up five percent from last year. "Rates were softer than last year; 75 percent of our reservations were received in the last 48 hours of arrival," says Jacobson.

Reservations were made extremely last minute. "We went from a 30 percent projected occupancy to a sell-out on Saturday," he adds.

The Village House in Jackson had a different take. Sally-Anne Partoon, co-owner of the inn, says, "We found it (Labor Day weekend) good. We were sold out for the weekend, including Friday." Partoon and her husband John, both from the UK, have owned the inn since the summer of 2007 and commented that this Labor Day bookings were not so much last minute.

Visitor counts at the Intervale Scenic Vista Visitor Center reflected the slow start. On Friday, Sept. 4, there were 775 visitors, on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2460 visitors, on Sunday, Sept. 6, 1900 visitors and on Monday, Sept. 7, 921 visitors. The figures are compiled by New Hampshire Department of Travel and Tourism.

Retail Report

Mayne reported that 71 percent of restaurants, retailers and attractions saw an increase over last year. While some lodging properties had a slow start restaurants and retail reported differently.

Peter Edwards, co-owner of Zeb's General Store in North Conway Village, reported that Friday night's numbers were higher and Saturday and Sunday's were similar to last year. He adds that the weekend went well considering the challenging times. "I sense that we [Mount Washington Valley] are not suffering as much as other tourist areas." Edwards noted.

Linda Rafferty, co-owner of Rafferty's Restaurant and Pub, also located in the Village, says Friday was extremely busy and adds that because they are in the village they capture the crowd that is already in town, "Overall, we were neck and neck with last year for the weekend," says Rafferty. Rafferty's also serves gluten-free menu choices, which could be part of the draw. Rafferty explained that now 50 percent of her customers are choosing gluten-free items.

Settlers' Green Outlet Village Plus, home of 63 retail stores, saw strong Labor Day sales. "We had the best of the summer so far," says Dot Seybold, general manager. Seybold attributes brisk sales to the beautiful weather and the fact that Labor Day was late this year. Seybold says that earlier in the season, people were hiking, biking, shopping a little, but didn't get a chance to get all the school shopping finished.

"Because Labor Day was late in the year and some schools started early, some people didn't get their shopping done; it helped that Labor Day was later — this worked in our favor," says Seybold

Business driven by price

It is not a surprise that in this challenging economy sales are driven by competitive prices.

"Because of concern for the economy, customers are looking for sales," explains Seybold. "August tent sales and Labor Day tent sales at Settlers' Green were definitely driving business," she adds. Some stores have reduced inventory because of the sluggish economy, but the stores that were stocked well, did well. "Most of the stores were stacked to the gills, anyone who had a strong inventory did well," says Seybold.

Back-to-school shoppers helped boost sales. "It is all about getting good values, especially when it comes to kids. Parents don't skimp when it comes to kid's clothing; they buy good clothes, good shoes and don't skimp, says Seybold. She adds that sometimes parents will skip the out to dinner night in lieu of buying good clothes for their children.

Lodging properties saw customers looking for the best deal, too. Although the Wyatt House didn't reduce rates this Labor Day weekend, they played the negotiating game.

"We didn't reduce our rates, but when people ask for a deal, I deal," says DiRusso. "I'd rather have a full house than argue over twenty dollars."

DiRusso has changed her pricing for the fall. The Wyatt House kept their fall rates to match the winter rates. Usually fall rates are higher, but because of the impact of the economy on the older traveler who may have lost substantial savings in the stock market, DiRusso is offering the same rate for the winter, hoping to still attract this demographic. So far it is working. "We have sold 30 percent of our rooms for Columbus Day and we did this in August. You can't put a price on the peace of mind that comes when rooms are rented," she says.

As of September, the inn has a 34 percent occupancy for Columbus Day.

At the Village House, Partoon has kept the rates pretty much the same. They did offer a special package, which included Labor Day weekend, and was good until Sept. 15 - stay two nights and get the third night free. "We do not have a minimum stay, but offered this package, which was popular and gives me an indication that people are fishing for deals," says Partoon.

At the Eagle Mountain House, rooms are usually $149 and this Labor Day rooms were priced at $99. Jacobson says pricing is like the gas wars in the past when gas prices were sky high (incidentally, according to AAA reporting, gas prices were $1.05 lower than last year). "We have to discount [rooms] to stay competitive, like the gas wars to petroleum companies. People are buying because of price; they go to Expedia [online booking] and book the room because of price," says Jacobson. "It used to be location, location, location; now the surveys say the change is dramatic, location is first and price is second."

Business driven by weather

It's all about the weather. Winter storms can impact summer sales. Jacobson explains that the canceling of February vacation in some of the southern New England states not only destroys February vacation week in the Valley, it has direct impact on the summer too. Schools were released later and began earlier in some areas and cut short the summer vacation.

Jacobson continues that June was a disaster with all the rain, July was OK and August was a little better and with all the snow, January was the best ever.

"I have learned to watch the long range weather forecast for Boston on the Tuesday before the upcoming weekend and we will reshuffle our staff," says Jacobson. "People don't want to invest their hard earned money to sit in the rain, when the Valley is all about outdoors," adds Jacobson.

Partoon echoes Jacobson's thoughts about the weather. "April until August were dreadful, guests were leaving a day early because of the rain," says Partoon.

On the other hand, summer sun brings joy to all. When the sun came out towards the end of the summer, Partoon says people came out too. "Between the weather and the economy being on a downward spiral, I think people finally decided to go for it and take a trip," she says. "Our business was fairly buoyant during the week after Labor Day," she adds. At the Wyatt House, DiRusso also says the good weather played a strong factor in good sales.

Fall expectations

No one really has the magic ball to project what will happen this fall — it is anyone's guess. Here's what some had to say.

"We have had a 75 percent reduction in bus tours for this fall, we have seen a softening of the international market, but people are still booking last minute," says Jacobson. Jacobson also explains that back in December the company projected an eight percent decrease and as of July they were down 14 percent, but that they are still ahead of the industry average, which is 17 percent. "All the rules about forecasting have gone out the window," he says.

In the retail sector Seybold thinks the fall will be good. "We now have a grown-up group of shoppers in their 40s, 50s and 60s whose kids are grown up. Now that the stock market is beginning to come back they are not panicking as much, they see good buys and want to take advantage," she says. Seybold adds that New England has always been a great value and that hasn't changed; people aren't spending the money to go to Disney or some of the glitzier destinations.

Seybold says she has seen a big change in the busy season. "It used to be a toss up between July and August being the busiest months. Now November is the busiest month." Seybold, along with the Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, have promoted November as a shopping month with the launch of the "Bring a Friend Campaign."

"Mostly women love to come up here and shop and eat," she says. "I think we will have a strong great fall; I have also heard people are starting to buy skis," adds Seybold.

Partoon thinks the fall will be good too. "It looks good for September, I think October will be last minute," says Partoon.

Although Jacobson doesn't think the fall will be that strong, perhaps he sums up everyone's expectations, "I am keeping my fingers crossed," he says

Martin Lord Osman
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