Pulling Together

news2After a recession-induced slump, the local tourism industry finds its footing

Along with the recession’s worst impacts—ballooning unemployment and rampant foreclosures, to name but two—the option of going on vacation disappeared from many people’s summer plans.

Santa Cruz began feeling the impact of this by 2009, when visitation dipped below Santa Cruz’s economic comfort zone and the persevering visitors spent less time and less money in the county. According to Smith Travel Research, annual hotel occupancy decreased from 55.6 percent in 2008 to 48.8 percent in 2009.

“2007 was big—the bubble was going to burst eventually,” Mark Gilbert remarks.

Gilbert owns Dolphin Restaurant, Woodies Cafe, and Gilbert’s Firefish Grill on the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. “[Restaurant] sales dropped … about 20 percent in 2008,” Gilbert says, explaining that the next couple of years were “flat.”

According to the Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council [CVC], more than 80 percent of visitors to Santa Cruz in 2009 were Californians, mostly from Northern California. And while Santa Cruz County was the main destination for those visitors, most would stay for the day and drive home without staying overnight.

In light of this, the CVC, which was formed in 1988 to unify and advance the county’s tourism efforts, brought out its tool kit.

“Our goal has been to increase [overnight] stays in the off-season months,” says Maggie Ivy, CEO and executive director of the CVC. To put Santa Cruz on the map as a getaway destination, the CVC leveraged its cooperative contracts with local businesses to attract the attention of travel agencies, magazines, freelance journalists, and Hollywood—garnering Santa Cruz dozens of spots on international media outlets within a few years.

Chris Ferrante, owner of Beach Street Inn, says the CVC has been an invaluable marketing force, especially in helping to increase fall occupancy rates. Santa Cruz has seen a 10.6 percent increase in hotel occupancy since the start of 2012, compared to a 3.6 percent increase across the state and a 5.6 percent increase in Monterey, according to the CVC. 

“This September, we’ve seen an occupancy increase of about [25 percent] over last September—where a lot of that is mid-week occupancy,” Ferrante says. “And that’s directly attributed to the CVC.”

Interestingly, roughly 25 percent of those mid-week September stays were international visitors—most often from the United Kingdom, Ferrante says.

“We’re very careful about getting the market in the U.K.,” Ivy says, adding that the U.K. now accounts for more than half of Santa Cruz’s international visitation. “They really love surfing culture, [and] there is no language barrier.”

But fall isn’t entirely dependent on the international market. “We’re really starting to click with the locals this year,” Gilbert explains on a recent chilly fall afternoon. “We’re supposed to expect it to be flat [right now], but we have a full dining room.”

Kris Reyes, spokesperson for the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which he says has enjoyed “a very strong 2012,” says the Boardwalk is also working to increase fall and winter visitation.

In addition to the popular Clam Chowder Cook-Off, he notes that the Boardwalk has added an October Chili Cook-Off, a band review, and a cheer competition to its line-up in recent years. 

Bonnie Lipscomb, the city’s director of economic development, says she feels encouraged by the sturdy up tick in numbers. “Although it’s slow, improvement is happening,” Lipscomb says.

According to the CVC’s 2009 visitor report, the main (and, largely, only) visitor complaint about Santa Cruz was the traffic. An old-fashioned trolley purchased by the Redevelopment Agency (which was absolved, along with all California RDAs, and is superseded by the Economic Development Department) premiered in 2010 to ferry riders between downtown and the Boardwalk during the summer months.

Lipscomb estimated that the quaint trolley car would have had 35,000 riders in 2012. “[A lot of visitors] didn’t know where our downtown was, and the trolley takes all of that [confusion] away,” she says.

The latest big-ticket project in the city has been the premiere of Hotel Paradox, which had its grand opening party on Sept. 22.

“That is huge,” says Lipscomb. “It’s a dramatic improvement for the area.”

Tony Eichers, general manager at Hotel Paradox, says while he can vouch for the strong U.K. presence, he is also encouraged by the bookings from California visitors.

“It’s amazing how many people come for the day, but then wind up having such a great time … they’ll say ‘let’s spend the night,’” Eichers says, adding that he estimates that walk-in bookings account for “about 10 percent of people.”

Going into the fall shoulder season, Paradox will take the tried-and-true route of offering special rates through online travel agencies such as Expedia, Travelocity, and Priceline. But because the hotel offers a fully equipped conference space, “Already we have the Oracles of the world, the Ciscos, [and] the Googles coming over the hill,” Eichers says.

In addition to Gilbert’s new restaurant plans, several hotel renovation and expansion plans are under way around town, according to Lipscomb, and the Boardwalk will be unveiling a new roller coaster in summer 2013, according to Reyes. Together, these give cause to suspect an even stronger tourism showing for 2013.

Photo credit: Keana Parker

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