Room revenues at hotels and motels in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties dropped about 2 percent in 2013 from the year before, revealing the lodging industry's struggles in spring and early summer and a rebound in the second half of the tourist season, according to an analysis of state tax data by The Press of Atlantic City.
Room revenues in South Jersey had climbed steadily since the recession ended and peaked in 2012 before last year's decline.
Some of the dip may be attributed to cold, wet weather early in the tourist season, as well as various road-widening projects on the Garden State Parkway that may have deterred traffic-weary travelers, said Brian Tyrrell, assistant professor of hospitality and tourism management studies at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
"They'll see an equal and opposite bump once the parkway is done. … It's going to make it shorter for folks to come down," he said.
The drop, which varied by county, also reflects lower November and December revenues than the year prior, when people displaced from Hurricane Sandy boosted occupancies in the typically slow time of year, particularly in Atlantic County.
The state Division of Taxation recently released December data showing income from its 5 percent state hotel-occupancy tax, a gauge used to track the industry by state and county.
The Press analyzed monthly figures for South Jersey to indicate how the regional industry fared last year compared with the state and with previous months the year before.
Lodgings in the three-county region generated nearly $14.2 million in state tax revenue last year, or about 16 percent of the state's total.
That number doesn't include additional taxes that some municipalities impose, including Atlantic City and the Wildwoods.
In Ocean City, the 24-room Ocean Front Motel had a slightly better year than before, but General Manager John Capalbo said he was expecting a much better one.
"It was a strange year. I don't know else to put it. Quite frankly, I'm still trying to figure it out," he said.
As the motel was preparing for the season, Capalbo was fielding questions from potential vacationers who frequented more storm-damaged towns in Ocean County.
"The phone was ringing hard and heavy with questions from people who say we generally go to Long Beach Island and Seaside, but they got washed out. … I really thought we were going to have a banner year. When it was all said and done, we did a little better, but not as well as we were hoping," he said.
Early season wet weather did not help either. June was one of the wettest on record.
"Weather probably contributes to 95 percent of our success. If the weather is good, people are going to come. If weather is bad, I don't care if you sell rooms for 29 bucks. People aren't going to come in bad weather," he said.
In Cape May County, taxable room revenues were down in June and July before picking up in August and September. For the year, taxable revenues were down less than 1 percent.
In Atlantic County, annual room revenues fell 3 percent. Major declines occurred in November and December, reflecting an influx of displaced Hurricane Sandy victims the year before, Tyrrell said.
In Cumberland County, revenues dropped about 7 percent. New Jersey as a whole saw revenues rise about 1 percent.
Bruce Hamlin, owner of Cape May County-based Shore Resort Property Management, which managed four hotel properties in the Wildwoods last year, said 2013 exceeded the company's goals, but he has heard from acquaintances who said business was down.
Hamlin, who also owns the Paradise Oceanfront Resort in Wildwood Crest, said he saw more vacationers being thrifty last year. More families rented rooms together, and grill usage was noticeably higher, as more customers cooked rather than dine out, he said.
"In all of our properties and one- and two-bedroom suites, we saw more families coming through the doors with food to prepare their own meals in the rooms and on grills," he said.
For Capalbo, his eyes are squarely on 2014.
The seasonal Ocean Front Motel reopens April 10, just before Ocean City's popular weekend that includes the Basset Hound Olympics and the quirky Doo Dah Parade.
The early season is an important one in his business. He has no difficulties filling rooms in Ocean City in July and August, he said.
"April and May are the only times that I can ever figure that could bring us over the top," he said. "If I could do phenomenal business in April and May, that's going to bring us over the top."
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