News Column

Can Shore Business Owners Get Social, Media?

Dec. 23, 2012

Michael L. Diamond

Jersey Business

The biggest rock stars of the day gathered for a benefit at Madison Square Garden to raise money for the Jersey Shore and other places battered by superstorm Sandy. It was beamed to 2 billion people worldwide, each of them seeing relentless images of destruction, washed-out homes and destroyed summer icons.

And just like that, the Shore's tourism officials and business owners knew their task was going to be tough.

"We're open," said Steven Levine, chief operating officer of the Windmill, a chain of eight restaurants that survived the storm even though half its locations are a stone's throw from the water. "I don't know if anybody knows."

The Shore has launched a low-budget, grassroots marketing campaign to alert visitors that, despite the devastation, many businesses remain open.

It puts them in a tight spot. On one hand, they can't help but say a million thank yous to charities raising money for the hard-hit region, knowing that homeowners and business owners need all the help they can get. On the other, they need to send word that things aren't that bad.

The combination of the two might pay off. As they gauge the progress made seven weeks after Sandy, they said they feel better about their prospects than they did in the days after the storm.

"I think the recovery is going much quicker than any of us thought it would," said Robert Hilton, executive director of the Jersey Shore Convention & Visitors Bureau, which promotes Monmouth and Ocean counties' tourism industry. "There's only so many carpenters, plumbers, wood for the boardwalk. But I'll tell you something: I am absolutely amazed at what a great job everybody is doing."

At stake is whether they can salvage a tourism season that generated $5.9 billion in Monmouth and Ocean counties in 2011, according to Tourism Economics in Wayne, Pa. And it begins sooner than you think; visitors no doubt will begin making summer vacation plans after the holidays.

A report released last Thursday by Jeffrey Otteau, president of the Otteau Valuation Group, a research firm in East Brunswick, brought a reality check to much of the optimism that was starting to take root.

The rush to rebuild is likely to be tempered by whether New Jersey receives the federal aid it has requested; whether insurance premiums will be affordable; whether government agencies will sign off on construction projects quickly; and whether businesses can survive the economic threats, Otteau wrote.

"The more compelling question is to what extent consumers will be willing to spend $3.50 a gallon to drive to a place that will be offering something less than it did before," he said. "How many of us have spent a night in a Shore motel or decided at the last moment on a 'day trip' for some beach time and a seafood dinner? Or more to the point, how many of us will decide against this until the rich fabric of the Shore experience has been restored?"

Most business owners can't think that far ahead.

Stephen Pazienza, owner of Green Planet Coffee Co., said Sandy made the end of the year rough. His coffee shop in Point Pleasant Beach was shut down for 10 days; his store in Manasquan was without power for two weeks; and he decided not to reopen his store in Ocean Township because it was losing money.

Pazienza donated thousands of dollars in perishable items before they went bad. He lost $18,000 in sales during the time he was closed. He had to restock his inventory. Just before the storm hit, he opted not to renew insurance to cover spoiled food, deciding instead to save $300 a year. And some of his regular customers have been displaced.

But the two stores remaining were unscathed. And he senses a shift; shoppers have decided to spend their money at local mom-and-pop stores.

"They see the community come together and see a small business and say, 'I'm going to go here,' " Pazienza said.

Other business owners offered similar reports.

Jenny Robertson, owner of Quinnderella's Toys in Manasquan, said her store also went without power for two weeks and was closed for a few days more while it waited on the cable company to fix the credit-card machine and telephones.

But "it's really picked up for the holidays," Robertson said. "I was very worried, just because the immediate area was so drastically affected."

Not Much Marketing

Missing from the equation is a giant marketing campaign. Take the Gulf Coast. Its beaches apparently have recovered from the damage left by the BP oil spill if the commercials -- paid in part by the $92 million BP is giving to Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana to promote tourism -- are accurate.

The Shore's tourism groups -- the Jersey Shore Convention & Visitors Bureau with an annual budget of $111,000 and the Long Beach Island Region of the Jersey Shore with $141,000 -- aren't as well-heeled.

There may be more financial help. Hilton said he has requested millions as part of a federal aid package being debated in Congress. And lawmakers including state Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, introduced legislation that would provide $20 million for tourism promotion.

The local tourism groups are relying on regional radio advertisements and the Internet, including videos posted on YouTube, to get the word out that the Shore is open for business.

"The beaches look good and there are plenty of new pictures coming out," Lori Pepenella, director of the Long Beach Island tourism group, said. "A lot of things we've done, people think it's pre-storm. We have to put a time stamp on it because people think that's not the way we look."

Short memories may prompt homeowners and business owners to not take adequate precaution for future storms. But they have a flip side in the business world, too, by allowing consumers to be resilient, even as they and their neighbors wind up in the photographs spread around the world.

Jill Moran, the manager of Inlet Outlet Surf Shop in Manasquan, can attest. Her home in the borough was flooded and will need to be raised. But she said she and her husband don't plan to move.

Meantime, she too said consumers are rallying around local stores -- an early sign that despite all of the obstacles, there's a chance the Shore can come back.

"There are people who say, 'You need help.' You say, 'No, we're fine.' And they say, 'You need help,' " Moran said. "What's ahead for the summer? We'll change a few things. But we'll figure it out."

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Distributed by MCT Information Services



Source: (c) 2012 the Asbury Park Press (Neptune, N.J.)


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