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Budget-wary travelers’ summer plans concern U.S. dining destinations

Budget-wary travelers’ summer plans concern U.S. dining destinations

Most Americans will still take their hard-earned summer vacations and dine recreationally this year, albeit more frugally because of the troubled economy, tourism and hospitality analysts predict.

However, many travelers are not expected to venture as far from home as in past years or stay away as long, said tourism experts and restaurateurs with locations in seasonal-getaway destinations.

“Based on historical patterns, I think we will still see travelers taking vacations this summer, but they will modify how they vacation,” said Cathy Keefe, spokes-woman for the Travel Industry Association in Washington, D.C.

“Usually, people modify the types of restaurants they’ll go to [on holiday],” she said. “I think they will still eat out, but they may eat out once a day instead of three times” and seek out homes away from home that have cooking facilities.

“Due to the challenging economic outlook, rising fuel prices and the declining U.S. dollar abroad, money is tight for some, and our survey shows that one-third of Americans are in fact changing how they travel just to save on costs,” said Jim Kovarik, general manager of AOL Travel, an online travel discount vendor.

A recent survey by AOL Travel and Zogby International disclosed that 53 percent of Americans surveyed are planning vacations, and 69 percent said fuel prices would not influence what destinations they choose. However, 57 percent said they have less money to spend this year on vacations and seek ways to save on costs.

Several waterfront restaurant owners expect more day-trip business than in the past from customers who live within a few hours’ drive. Day trips look promising for Ray’s Boathouse in Seattle and Bahrs Landing in Highlands, N.J.

“We expect a lot more local people to be traveling within Washington state,” said Lori Magaro, marketing manager of Ray’s Boathouse, which operates both a white-tablecloth component with a $50 check average and a casual restaurant with a $25 average tab.

Ray’s and other Seattle-area restaurants also should benefit from a good local economy and growth in housing, Magaro said. She also expects to see more international visitors this summer, especially from Canada, since the currency exchange rate now favors Canadians.

Rick Cosgrove, owner of Bahrs Landing at the entrance to Sandy Hook National Park on the Jersey Shore, expects to see “a lot of day trippers,” especially from New York City, from which the park is accessible in an hour by commuter boat.

“We’re booking more family gatherings than ever,” he said.

Some operators hope for good weekend business, at least. High-end destinations, like Cape Cod, Mass., which draws mostly from a 4-hour driving radius, are seeing more summer hotel reservations and website hits, said Arthur Ratsy, tourism vice president of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce.

“Being a higher-end market helps,” he said.

The biggest problem Ratsy anticipates is a summer labor shortage because of federal government foot-dragging on the granting of temporary-worker visas.

The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo., also expects a strong summer, with 95-percent occupancy already booked for June, and July and August bookings running ahead of last summer, said the hotel’s Allison Scott. Most guests dine on the property during most of their stay, she said.

“We count on legacy clients who come back year after year for family reunions and vacations,” she said. “We are not recession-proof, just recession-delayed.”

Value-conscious travelers may be cutting back on weekend trips that include dining out, said Billy Sewell, a 22-unit Golden Corral franchisee based in Jacksonville, N.C. As of early May he had not yet seen a pickup in weekend traffic at restaurants in beach communities, which usually starts after Easter.

In hopes of attracting more summer business, Sewell will start running value-focused TV and newspaper ads later this month, along with coupon inserts that will be good for 60 days.

However, the operators of popular family destinations, including theme parks and national parks, have been encouraged by early signs of strong seasonal attendance. Glen White of Delaware North Cos., a lodgings concessionaire for the Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, said bookings have been running 3.6 percent ahead of last year for summer months.

“National parks are still perceived as a real value,” White said. “People are either staying closer to home or reaching back to value propositions.”

Six Flags, operator of 20 theme parks, saw an attendance spike in its first quarter, which included spring break, spokeswoman Sandra Daniels said. The chain has broadened foodservice options to suit a variety of budgets, and combinations of proprietary and national-brand quick-service outlets are being offered, she said.

“We will lower admission prices in select parks” to better appeal to families on tighter budgets, Daniels said. “People still want to have fun and enjoy their summer.”

Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant Association, said a mandated delay in schools’ start dates resulted in an increase of $209 million in her state’s hospitality revenues last August, compared with the same month in 2006. Some school districts had been starting classes as early as late July before passage of the law, which restricts the start of the school year to no sooner than 14 days before Labor Day. She also anticipates that international tourism would continue to benefit Florida’s hospitality economy this year.

International tourism has picked up in New York, according to NYC & Company, the city’s official marketing and tourism organization. It tallied spending by international tourists in the first quarter alone as having risen 20 percent from year-earlier levels.

One New York restaurant company that caters to European travelers, Union Square Hospitality Group, is listing its wine prices in euros and dollars at The Modern, its restaurant in the Museum of Modern Art. While international business at that restaurant is up, business from American travelers is down, said general manager Graceanne Jordan.

The Modern has received positive guest feedback from Europeans “thanking us for doing the math for them,” Jordan said.

A small-town getaway, the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Mich., is booking even with last summer, which was above average, said spokesman Ken Hayward, who also is a state travel commissioner. He theorized that regional travelers who would otherwise venture farther from home are choosing the Grand instead.

Michigan, whose beleaguered auto industry has given the state the nation’s highest unemployment rate, recently doubled its promotional budget for tourism, targeting neighboring states and Canada, Hayward said.

“Gas prices will play a huge role in how [Mackinac] Island goes this summer,” he said, noting that vacationers there can save money on gas because they must leave their vehicles on the mainland to visit the car-free destination.

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