Tourism insiders look for growth in 2009

Gwen Chamberlain
Tourists will soon be looking for things to do, while businesses will be looking for ways to keep them here.

With all the uncertainty about the national and global economy, it’s probably fair to say projections for the 2009 tourism season in the Finger Lakes Region are mixed.

But a few local tourism industry business people are optimistic about the potential for growth or at least stability in 2009.

Yates County, with a bulk of vacation rental properties, may be positioned to benefit the most from some emerging trends.

Mike Linehan, president of the Yates County Chamber of Commerce, who has been attending the regular round of travel shows to promote the Finger Lakes and New York State as travel destinations, says many of the people he’s talked with are seriously considering a vacation at a rental property in the Finger Lakes.

“I don’t mean to sound naive, but we’re going to be good this year. What we’re hearing is, ‘I don’t care what the media is saying, I deserve to go on a vacation.’” Linehan says.

After 25 years of participating in travel shows, Linehan has seen a lot of situations, and he wasn’t sure what to expect when he headed out to the first show this year, but what he’s been hearing has been encouraging.

“It’s going to be a huge year for vacation rentals. It’s an economical way to stay and a nice environment for a family, with all the creature comforts of home,” he says.

Those conversations may be showing up in reality in early reports from at least one local vacation rental agency.

Soon after Century 21 Sbarra and Wells  announced its merger with Finger Lakes Getaways, an established vacation rental management firm, Deb Sbarra, co-owner of Sbarra and Wells  and Jan Butler, who built Finger Lakes Getaways, said the number of rental properties that were listed with the firm had increased, and reservations were ahead of 2008 reservations.

And projections from a national level support Linehan’s optimism. In its top ten trends for 2008 and 2009 travel, Randall Travel Marketing said family reunion travel is expected to increase.

Linehan says he promotes a trip in the Finger Lakes in 2009 is an opportunity to share a good old-fashioned family vacation.

Vacation rentals aren’t the only businesses expecting to see a solid year.

Burney Baron, who, with his wife, Susan, owns Los Gatos Bed & Breakfast just north of Penn Yan on Route 14A, says 2009 is “looking very positive. There’s a lot of value in travel. The price of gas is down and that makes traveling a good deal for the people who can do it.”

He says their reservations are ahead of last year at this point. Some of the reservations are return visitors, but many are new, first-time visitors to the Finger Lakes, and they are asking for more information about things to do in the Finger Lakes.

“It looks like the Finger Lakes is getting a lot of attention,” he says.

Victor Nelson, general manager of the Ramada Inn located in Geneva, is more cautious, but he still sees a bit of improvement in business as the year progresses.

“We really don’t know what to expect. The first quarter has been very dismal compared to last year,” he says, noting that industry-wide business was down between eight and 12 points during the first quarter, largely due to declines in corporate travel.

“This is the first time the Finger Lakes area has felt any part of the recession. We’ve been in a recession for three years and now the government is beginning to talk about it,” he adds.

Nelson says the Finger Lakes tourism hasn’t felt pressure like this since Sept. 11, 2001, and that he expects the local economy to begin to recover sooner.

Linehan draws a similar connection between the circumstances following 9/11 and the current conditions, and he sees potential for the Finger Lakes region in the mix.

“Americans are reconnecting. Everyone is talking about family reunions again,” he says.

Nelson expects 2009 will be a year of gradual improvement on the heels of a watershed year in 2007 and stable year in 2008.

“The second quarter seems to be a slow recovery. The phones are starting to be more active,” he says, explaining his expectation is that this season will be one of slow recovery, with more people booking one night stays rather than two nights.

If the lodging businesses are looking for growth in 2009, that’s good news for other businesses, including area wineries, which depend on visitors and retail sales on site.

Paul Thomas, executive director of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, says while he’s heard national projections warning of a 25 percent drop in travel this year, “As a trail, we’re hanging in there and I describe flat as the new up.”

Thomas says many in the winery industry are concerned about the overall economic conditions, there may be some cause for relative optimism.

“If the lodging sector is robust, that’s good to know. That speaks volumes for the region,” he says.

The challenge for attractions will be to draw these visitors away from their lakeside relaxation long enough to spend some money in wineries, restaurants, shops and on entertainment away from the beach fire.