With July and August bringing in relatively easy money for shore towns, and the dead of winter a hard sell, the months in between — the shoulder season — have become vital to area businesses.
Up and down the shore, towns are hosting special events and programs between Labor Day and New Year’s Day to draw crowds. Not many roads lead to Cape May, but these days, plenty of Road Scholars head there.
Road Scholar is the still-young name for the old Elderhostel program, which since 1975 has sent close to 5 million people, mostly of retirement age, on educational and cultural tours and adventures around the United States and the world.
Cape May is the only place in New Jersey where Road Scholar sends participants now, but these groups visit the city often, starting right around Labor Day and running through the fall. Mary Stewart, chief outreach officer of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities, the Cape May-based organization that coordinates the Road Scholars’ visits, has groups arriving every week through Oct. 21 — some weeks, more than one group. Three more are set for November, and another in December, for the popular Cape May Victorian Christmas program.
Elderhostel adopted the new name in 2010, hoping to appeal to a younger, baby boomer-age market, and to reflect the reality that its people don’t stay in youth hostels or college dorm rooms anymore. When Road Scholars visit Cape May now, they stay at the Inn of Cape May, which sits directly across the street from the beach and has ocean views from many of its rooms.
The Boston-based Road Scholar organization has sent people to Cape May in its high season, “But in July and August, it’s a lot more difficult to get space at a reasonable rate,” said Daryl Bell, a senior program manager with Road Scholar.
They visit in fall and then, after a winter lull, the educational tourists start flocking back to Cape May in the spring.
In Ocean City, some shoulder season events, such as the block party and First Night, have become classics, public information director Mark Soifer said.
“The block party has been going on for 30 years,” he said. “It started out small, and now it’s a mile long. We have it Columbus Weekend, it’s an Indian Summer weekend, and on Saturday this block party that goes from Fifth to 14th Street.”
Soifer estimates the block party draws 15,000 to 25,000 people. He said the Halloween parade is also popular, and First Night, on New Year’s Eve, draws 10,000 people every year. On New Year’s Day, the city hosts a polar bear plunge that Soifer said draws thousands of people. Those in attendance come from all over, he said.
“We have people coming from out of town for the block party and First Night. They stay in a motel,” he said. “But then with the block party, for a lot of people it’s like a reunion for them. They see old friends walking down Asbury Avenue. We have a combination of Ocean City people, and then we have a draw from the surrounding area: Somers Point, Mays Landing, Egg Harbor Township, and then we have people coming from far from town. It’s sort of a combination.”
Business at Malelani Cafe, in Ventnor, does not take a significant dive come autumn, but the type of customer visiting the cafe changes. Owner George Drakopoulos said the crowd gets more local.
“All the people we didn’t see in the summer, now we start to see them come out again,” he said. Everyone is working. All the locals are out on the beach. But now that they have some time, they have two days off, they come in a lot more. And I really like this crowd a lot more; they’re really dedicated to the cafe more.”
The Road Scholar visitors obviously don’t mind traveling all the way to Cape May. Dan Callahan, a guide for the Mid-Atlantic Center, started a tour earlier this month by asking his trolley’s 35 or so passengers where they live. The answers came from all over the map — West Virginia, Virginia, Connecticut, Florida, California and more.
The maritime-history group’s itinerary for the day included the Lower Township observation tower used for spotting enemy submarines and ships at sea during World War II; the legendary concrete ship at nearby Sunset Beach; Cape May Lighthouse in Cape May Point; and the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum, the World War II flight-training base.
Road Scholar deals don’t include the cost of travel to the location, but most frequent visitors said they like the fact that once they get where they’re going, all their bills are paid. The packages include lodging, three meals a day and every activity that’s part of the program.
For next week’s culinary tour, the price for six days and five nights is $699, double-occupancy, or $849 for a single. And that’s in September, one of the most popular times to be at the South Jersey shore.
Art and Marge Miller, of Audubon, Pa., said they were on their 30th “Elderhostel” trip — including tours to Australia, New Zealand and China.
“And we just came back from one in Yosemite National Park,” added Art, who is 88 and retired from the National Park Service.
In Cape May, “They usually get into kitchens and see chefs in action” on the culinary tour, Stewart said. “We’ve taken groups into artists’ studios, to the alpaca farm, for a backdoor tour of the zoo. During the (Cape May) Music Festival, I usually bring artists into the classrooms. ... It’s not the typical tourist activity.”
Cape May expects to host about 600 Road Scholars total this year. That isn’t a huge number for a town with such a thriving tourist industry, but those visitors can give a nice business bump to the places where they show up as a group.
Stewart said Road Scholar groups in Cape May usually include about 30 people, but during one week this month, they were “filling 20 rooms at the hotel, which (the inn) probably wouldn’t fill on their own.”
She added that the Mid-Atlantic Center is always looking for new programs to expand its appeal to Road Scholar tourists — including possibly becoming partners with Philadelphia and Atlantic City on projects to add more appeal.
Ocean City’s Soifer said the temperature and the vibe, which are both milder than during the summer, contribute to the popularity of the events.
“It’s a good time for us,” he said. “We’re busy, and it’s a beautiful time of year because of the weather, and it’s a little more relaxed.”
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