Ocean City looks ahead to summer -- and tourists up for grabs

TravelBeach VacationsTourism and LeisureHotels and AccommodationsRestaurant and Catering IndustryBusinessHurricane Sandy (2012)

In past summers, Rodney, the fictional Ocean City lifeguard in the resort town's advertising campaign, has ventured to rescue New Yorkers and New Jerseyites from summer boredom.

After Hurricane Sandy, Rodney may have less convincing to do.

While Sandy affected a large swath of the East Coast, it made landfall on the Jersey shore and caused nearly $37 billion in damage to that state, according to recent estimates. In the beach town of Seaside Heights, a roller coaster knocked into the Atlantic Ocean has become a symbol of the destruction wrought by the storm.

In contrast, Ocean City has recovered quickly from the storm, with far less damage to infrastructure and tourism draws like the boardwalk. And that has created an economic opportunity, albeit a regrettable one for the neighbors to the north.

"It's one of those things where you don't want to benefit from other peoples' unfortunate situation," said Melanie Pursel, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce. "But it seems to me from what I've seen, at least anecdotally, for some of those other beach communities it's going to be quite some time before they're up and running again, and some of them may be changed forever."

While resorts from Atlantic City to Cape May survived the storm mostly unscathed, extensive rebuilding that could take years is needed in northern areas of the Jersey shore like Sea Bright and Long Beach Island. Regular visitors to those areas may end up looking for a new vacation spot — with potential ripple effects for Maryland beaches, including bigger crowds and even higher prices, economists said.

Ocean City and New Jersey beaches pull tourists from many common regions, including Philadelphia, central Pennsylvania and greater New York City. Particularly in northern New Jersey and New York, the "feeder" markets suffered as much or more damage than the resort areas, said Israel Posner, executive director of the Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton College in Galloway, N.J.

Ocean City's advertising campaign reaches those areas, said Donna Abbott, the town's director of tourism and marketing. Town tourism officials will plan the 2013 campaign soon, she said, recognizing the need to be cognizant of the emotions of those who have suffered losses.

"We know that could have been us," Abbott said of the devastated Jersey shore.

The "Rodney" campaign is sure to return, Pursel said, and some element of the campaign might sensitively target those looking for a new destination. Some businesses have suggested incentives or promotions to help capture some of those tourists, though none has been formalized, Pursel said.

There are typically 200,000 to 400,000 tourists in Ocean City at any given point in the summer. More from up north would be welcomed, town spokeswoman Jessica Waters said.

"We'll welcome them with open arms and hope we'll be able to provide a vacation that might give them some joy after what they endured this fall," Waters said.

Travel industry group AAA said it's too early to make projections about summer travel. Vacation planning is likely to occur in the coming weeks, experts said, at family holiday gatherings and afterward in January.

Given the magnitude of damage in some areas of New Jersey, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Ragina Averella said a shakeup in tourism is a potential outcome. "It certainly, unfortunately, sounds like that's a possibility," she said.

Ocean City could be a substitute for regulars on the northern Jersey shore, said George R. Parsons, a professor of marine policy and economics at the University of Delaware. Parsons plans to conduct an unrelated survey of tourists to gauge the impact of offshore wind on travel destinations, and he now plans to ask about Sandy's impact as well.

If enough Jersey shore visitors are looking to travel elsewhere, it could have an impact on hotel or property rental prices in places like Ocean City, Parsons said. Joseph Seneca, an economics professor at Rutgers University, said he doesn't expect demand for beach vacations to wane, though the stock of housing could remain down for a couple of years on the northern Jersey shore, driving up rental rates.

"It would depend on the extent to which that substitution is occurring," Parsons said of the price shock. "Certainly those beaches get pretty much at capacity during those peak periods in the summer, so that could bid prices up."

According to the New Jersey tourism office's website, Atlantic City reopened to tourists three days after Sandy passed, while assistance like loan guarantees and grants are available to business owners struggling to reopen in other areas.

Industry observers in the Garden State are watching the cleanup closely. Mark Stevens, who owns Two Rivers Travel near the devastated community of Sea Bright, said it could mean a boost for his business, given that many members of nearby beach clubs will likely be looking to head out of town for vacation.

In Ocean City, meanwhile, business leaders are readying for business as usual next season.

For Jolly Roger Amusement Park, the most significant repairs needed are to the Ocean City fishing pier, which the company is responsible for under a franchise agreement with the town. Dean Langrall, marketing director for Jolly Roger parent Bay Shore Development Corp., said the pier is scheduled to be ready for summer.

For the most part, businesses were ready for what Sandy brought, he said.

"They know how to batten down the hatches, and they know how to sit it out," Langrall said. "The sun came out the next day, and we're looking forward to next summer."

At the popular bar and restaurant Fager's Island, as at many homes and businesses along Assawoman and Isle of Wight bays, the storm's effects were more apparent. Heavy flooding destroyed nearly a dozen refrigerators and most of the alcohol inventory at Fager's, and the storm surge wiped out the bar's back deck and gazebo that sat over the water.

As many as 50 staff members at a time gathered to work on repairs in the days after the storm, general manager Kevin Myers said. Initial repairs allowed the restaurant to reopen about three days after Sandy had passed, but more repairs will be continuing until summer, he said.

Myers said he expects similar efforts are being made in harder-hit areas, which could keep tourists in their usual spots.

"Beach communities are pretty resilient, and I think whether it's Florida or the Gulf Coast or the Carolinas or us or whoever, I think everyone who's in business at the beach realizes there always is this peril of a weather issue," Langrall said. "My guess is the Jersey beaches will be back good to go by the summer just like our pier will be."

Disasters also tend to unite communities, such as in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Posner said. It's possible that even a still-bruised Jersey coast could draw people eager to support their favorite summer spot, he said. Others suggested Jersey shore faithful will simply be unwilling to substitute a different locale.

"People in the region will want to support the tourism memories that people have about the New Jersey coastline," Posner said. "It's an emotional tug for people in the region."

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