Business outlook better this summer

Business is on an upswing this summer in Laguna Beach.

The national and state economic doldrums are far from over, but members of the local hospitality industry, business community and art festivals are reporting a welcome improvement over last year.

"We won't get the official hotel figures until later in the summer, but we are hearing the numbers are positive," said Karyn Philippsen, president of the Laguna Beach Visitors Bureau.

"In July, we counted more than 2,000 visitors in one-on-one contacts with our staff and at least another 500 who came to the bureau just to get brochures," she said.

Downtown is bustling with people, and a lot of them are buying.

"We are doing double the business we did last year," said Bushard Pharmacy owner Sheila Bushard Jamison. "We are seeing lots of people from all over the world, and we didn't see that last year."

At the other end of Forest Avenue, Fawn Memories owner George Nelson said business has been better this year; it was quite good at the beginning of the summer but has tapered off recently. He blames "back-to-school" television ads.

"They have cut the season short," Nelson said.

However, the rosier local economic picture is not limited to the summer, said Rose Hancock, executive director of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce.

"The number of new businesses opening in town is a sign of economic growth in Laguna Beach," Hancock said.

She estimated that the chamber is arranging one ribbon-cutting event a week.

"We have celebrated so many new openings, I have a sore thumb," said Mayor Toni Iseman, who wields the ceremonial scissors at grand openings.

However, the downtown boom is more of a "boomlet" in what business owners from Thalia to Diamond streets call the HIP District, according to Rebecca Barber, Studio Arts Gallery owner and wife of glassblower John Barber.

"There are just not a lot of people at this end of town, although business has improved over last year," Rebecca Barber said. "A lot of people think summer is a gallery's busiest time of the year, but that's not my experience. Many folks would rather buy from the artists at the festivals."

Barber's husband is a long-time exhibitor at the Sawdust Art Festival.

"He is doing really well," Barber said. "He said the gate is up."

Sawdust General Manager Tom Klingenmeier confirmed that attendance is up this year, boosting art and concession sales.

Rather than getting commissions at their booth, the artists are selling inventory, Klingenmeier said.

"Tom is exactly right," said potter Sally Wilde, who's in her 39th summer at the festival. "Other potters are telling me that customers are buying off the shelves. August was always better for me than July."

But sales this year have been good from the get-go.

"I thought it was going to be bad, bad, bad again, but it's been really good," Wilde said.

Klingenmeier said he attributes much of this year's success to aggressive marketing, including selling tickets in high-traffic locations.

"Cynthia Fung [the marketing director for Sawdust] came up with the idea of selling tickets at Costco this year," Klingenmeier said.

Down the road, Art-A-Fair is experiencing an increase in attendance and sales for the second year in a row.

"We also have increased registration in our art workshops, which we have expanded from five days to seven days because of the demand," publicist Kathy Westervelt said.

The Festival of Arts is also seeing gains across the board.

"The Pageant of the Masters was sold out all but four nights in July — and those were near sell-outs," said Sharbie Higuchi, festival marketing and publicity director. "The Fine Arts sales booth is reporting a 10% increase over July 2010 sales and festival admissions are up by 25%.

"We are very appreciative of people investing their hard-earned money in coming to see the pageant and festival. It shows that even during these times people still seek good value, which can be found in the arts in Laguna Beach."

Reports are more optimistic this year from one end of town to the other.

"I think the weather is a factor," said restaurateur Jim Hirschberg, owner of Ti Amo Ristorante in South Laguna. "People from Texas and Atlanta are escaping from the heat, and our weather has been good. Last year, we had no summer here. The air was cold, the water was cold. No one wanted to sit on our patio. Now, we can't get them to leave.

"It is so much better."

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