Beach resorts in Maryland and Virginia are fighting for tourists whose regular spots along the New Jersey coast were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
South Jersey tourism officials, however, are fighting back.
Leading the fight are shore communities in Cape May and Atlantic counties, which were less badly damaged by the storm and have recovered faster.
South Jersey’s $35 billion-a-year tourism industry is depending on those shore towns to keep many of their visitors coming back instead of defecting to out-of-state beaches.
Last month, Cape May County took out a full-page advertisement in the Philadelphia Inquirer while doing massive email blasts and Facebook posts to make sure customers knew they could book their 2013 beach vacations there.
Families typically start thinking about summer-vacation plans during the Christmas holiday and start making calls in January, but the county didn’t want to wait that long this year.
“We started advertising over Thanksgiving,” Cape May County Tourism Director Diane Wieland said.
A recent story in the Baltimore Sun about resorts to the south, such as Ocean City, Md., hoping to attract displaced tourists attracted Wieland’s attention. She said she hoped northern New Jersey tourists would stay in the state.
Meanwhile, New Jersey is rallying its tourism industry to accomplish that goal.
Wieland and Liza Cartmell, president of the Atlantic City Alliance, attended a meeting in early December in Trenton with state and federal tourism officials on promoting the shore.
A consensus was reached to push Cape May and Atlantic counties as fully “open for business,” while helping Ocean and Monmouth counties get to that stage.
“Ocean County and Monmouth County are not ready, and they’re a big concern. This could impact the entire tourism industry in New Jersey. The four beach counties generate $18 billion a year, and we have two of them that aren’t ready,” Wieland said.
The meeting also addressed concerns about losing tourists to Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and even the Outer Banks in North Carolina. There was less concern about New England, although Wieland said the Poconos, which has casinos now, could target “our visitors.”
“We don’t want them to go south. People go to the same places every year, and we don’t want them to break that pattern,” Wieland said.
A representative from the Governor’s Office sat in on the meeting. Wieland noted that a lot of money was at stake. Tourists to Cape May County alone generated $429 million in state and local taxes in 2011.
A secondary problem is that some of the areas hit hardest by Sandy, such as New York City, supply some of the tourists that vacation at the shore. Wieland said Cape May County was courting old markets such as Canada while pursuing new markets.
“Do we move farther west? We’re looking at billboards in Ohio and the Pittsburgh area. It’s going to cost money, and the effort has to start now. Atlantic City is doing well. They are spending the money,” Wieland said.
Jean Miersch, who directs the Stone Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said it would take until January to know the level at which people are booking vacations. She said Stone Harbor would continue branching out to new markets, including Maryland, New York and northern New Jersey.
“We still advertise toward the Philly market, but they come here already, so we’re focusing on other areas,” Miersch said.
In the end, success depends on supplying a good product, said Joe Kelly, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber. He said good experiences on the gaming tables, dining, shopping, playing golf or going to the spa would draw tourists.
“From a business standpoint, anything that can be done to quickly say ‘We are back in business and better than ever’ in our offerings is what the chamber is advocating,” Kelly said.
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Melanie Pursel, who directs Maryland’s Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, said that there had been an advertising push in New Jersey and New York for several years but that damage from Sandy would give them a new opportunity “to showcase what we are.” She noted the town has 9,000 rooms, boardwalks on the ocean and bay, and free beaches.
Pursel said the situation was difficult because nobody wanted to appear insensitive to the damages caused in New Jersey, but she noted her town had incurred similar damage in previous coastal storms.
“There’s plenty of business to go around. It’s kind of touchy because they’re our sisters and brothers. Nobody wants to take an aggressive approach, but we hope people will look at us as another option if where they normally go isn’t open anymore,” Pursel said.
Nobody is really sure how Sandy will affect tourism. Even AAA Mid-Atlantic, which distributes travel advisories to its motorist members, is having difficulty with its holiday-season outlook.
“New Jersey was so hard hit, our prediction will be skewed. We don’t know what to say,” said Susan Madden, of AAA, adding that the organization is a long way from deciding what to advise for the 2013 summer season.
While tourism officials are trying to retain or gain new business, tourists are trying to get information on the towns they normally frequent. Phone calls to tourism officials and rental agents are picking up. Even the Webcam on the Wildwood Boardwalk is getting more hits.
Tracey Boyle-Dufault, of the Wildwood Chamber of Commerce, is advising her 600 members to send out emails to regular customers to let them know the resort is open. Responses indicate many thought Wildwood was heavily damaged, which it was not.
John Siciliano, who directs the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority, said state tourism officials were trying to hold the shore together as one marketing entity. The two immediate goals are to help the northern resorts while moving tourists to the southern resorts until they rebuild.
The southern resorts are sending truckloads of food and supplies to the north to “get them on their feet and keep the New Jersey shore strong,” Siciliano said. But with whole boardwalks and businesses gone, he said it could take years to rebuild, and nobody wants tourists to leave the state. Siciliano noted the Wildwoods have 8,000 hotel rooms and 4,000 condo and apartment units that can help.
Atlantic City has aggressively advertised its readiness, in part because of national media accounts that the city’s Boardwalk was destroyed. Cartmell said the ACA ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times on Nov. 11 showing that is not true. The storm damaged only one unused section of the boards.
“The ad showed visuals of the Boardwalk. We had a shot done of the Boardwalk from a helicopter. Everybody thinks the Seaside Heights roller coaster was the Steel Pier,” said Cartmell, who added that business was down the first two weeks after the storm.
The ACA is also working with Spirit Airlines to make sure casino customers as far away as Chicago, Boston and Detroit know everything is open. They also have reached out to the market that runs from Baltimore to New York, which accounts for 90 percent of the city’s visitors.
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