After Hurricane Sandy

How hard-hit destinations are working to win group business

Fighting Long-Term Damage
Roger Dow
Hurricane Sandy,
expected to be the most costly storm in U.S. history, will likely continue to take a toll on regional tourism, especially at the Jersey Shore and Long Island, in the months to come -- particularly during peak season from May through September.

As tourism professionals know, the cost of business lost is not limited to booked business that gets canceled; it also includes the loss of potential future business, which can be influenced by negative images and lingering perceptions of apocalyptic ruin.

Following the Gulf Coast BP oil spill, a 2010 analysis of previous disasters by Oxford Economics for the U.S. Travel Association found that impacted regions experience below-normal traveler levels for an average of 10 to 27 months, which leads to sustained job and revenue loss for travel businesses.

While federal Sandy funds have yet to be earmarked for a specific purpose, the Jan. 15 congressional passage of the hurricane relief bill was applauded by Roger Dow, above, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. "Travel is a key driver of the economy in many of the areas devastated by the storm," he said. "Previous disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have taught us an important lesson: One of the fastest roads to recovery is to restore travel and send a clear message that an impacted region is open for business." -- L.A.G.   


Four months after Hurricane Sandy struck, much of the New York and New Jersey coastline remains devastated. Damage from the storm is still being assessed, but officials estimate the toll for the Garden State alone will be just shy of $37 billion, while New York's tab is expected to reach about $32 billion.

At press time -- and after much drama -- Congress finally approved a $50.5 billion aid package for relief and recovery efforts. In the meantime, a number of communities and organizations have been working to restart the local economies and restore the public image of hard-hit towns, attractions and event facilities. Among these proactive agencies are the region's four largest destination management organizations: the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, the Jersey Shore Convention & Visitors Bureau, NYC & Company and the Long Island Convention & Visitors Bureau and Sports Commission.

Following is an account of how these DMOs are striving to quash misconceptions and lure group business back after the storm.

Atlantic City:"When you are ready, we are here"

Atlantic City  beachOne of the most haunting images of Hurricane Sandy's impact on New Jersey was that of Atlantic City's famed Boardwalk being swept away by the surging Atlantic. The footage certainly was dramatic, but it also was misleading, according to Jeff Vasser, president of the Atlantic City CVA. Only a very small portion of the Boardwalk north of the casino resorts was affected -- a section that had been weakened by previous storms and closed to pedestrian for several years.

"The rest of the Boardwalk was fine," Vasser says. "The beach was OK, the casinos were OK -- in fact, when Gov. [Chris] Christie lifted the evacuation order and mandatory closing of the casino resorts just five days later, we were open for business."

However, the damage to the seaside mecca's image was done. Not long after the storm, a national poll commissioned by the Atlantic City Alliance, a nonprofit marketing entity funded and overseen by the city's casinos, showed that 41 percent of Americans believed the Atlantic City Boardwalk had been destroyed.

Though little physical damage was recorded, the storm dealt the city a major financial blow, particularly in the meetings and conventions realm: Nine events scheduled at the Atlantic City Convention Center, including the New Jersey League of Municipalities and the New Jersey Education Association conventions, and 90 meetings booked at the city's 12 casino resorts, were canceled within days after the hurricane.

The city ended up losing 13,000 room nights and $30.7 million in delegate spending at a time when it could least afford it. Atlantic City concluded 2012 with its casino earnings down 8 percent from 2011 figures, perpetuating a six-year slide in gaming revenues.

But the storied entertainment district didn't fold up shop. Almost immediately, the ACCVA, along with other industry groups, went into overdrive to recoup some of the lost business by getting the word out that area attractions and meeting facilities were open and running.

For starters, the Atlantic City Alliance relaunched its sleek "Do AC" ad campaign on East Coast radio and TV stations, tweaked to include new images of unharmed stretches of the Boardwalk and casinos, reinforcing the message that the city's landmarks were not affected by Sandy (view a promo at bit.ly/VOrurw).

To boost events business, the ACA and ACCVA debuted a program to attract business for 2013. The campaign, funded by the destination's 12 casino resorts, pledges to give a total of $1 million to planners to help defray event expenses such as transportation from the airport, receptions, rent and electric bills. To qualify, new group or meetings business booked must take place in 2013 and generate a minimum of 1,000 room nights.

Jeff Vasser also is betting that, with the increased focus on post-Sandy Atlantic City, two new developments will catch clients' attention: the newly opened (and unharmed) Revel Resort, with 1,800 meeting rooms and 160,000 square feet of meeting space, and the recently approved new conference center at Harrah's Resort Atlantic City, which will add 100,000 square feet of meeting space to the property by 2014.

"These developments are huge for us," Vasser notes. "They give us more in our toolkit to offer corporate groups."

Still, recapturing Atlantic City's biggest tourist segment -- leisure visitors from New Jersey and New York -- remains the primary challenge. Vasser has a message for these elusive customers: "We realize visitors and supporters are still suffering and, in some cases, repairing damage to their own homes. We know coming to A.C. is not your priority, but when you are ready, we are here."

Jersey Shore: "Come down, visit our beaches"

The northern stretch of the 112-mile New Jersey coastline took the brunt of Sandy's impact on the Garden State. Stark images of debris-strewn beaches, collapsed homes, boarded-up restaurants and stores, along with an iconic shot of the forlorn, half-submerged roller coaster in Seaside Heights, were broadcast for weeks both here and abroad.

"A few local television stations, even to this day, have been showing footage from just after of the storm, when water was up to the ceiling in people's living rooms," says Robert Hilton, director of the Neptune, N.J.-based Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau, the DMO that promotes tourism in 87 shore communities, from Keyport to Barnegat. While many structures directly on the water were obliterated or nearly so, Hilton says that's not the complete story. "The major downtown districts were well-protected and sustained little damage," he notes. "Once the power came back, they were up and running."

With a tourism base that peaks in summer, the region did not lose much business in the immediate aftermath of Sandy, says Hilton, who calculates that the Jersey shore is responsible for about $19 billion in annual tourism revenues, slightly less than half of New Jersey's $39 billion tourism business.

As with Atlantic City, the challenge has been to get the word out that regardless of the shocking images of destruction, many shops, restaurants and theaters along the shore have remained open or have reopened. The JSCVB, with virtually no budget, created a crisis campaign with the slogan, "The Jersey Shore Is Open for Business!" Hilton calls the measure, which includes new logos, signs and an interactive website (bit.ly/WhV1H3), "a call to arms designed to show positive images to counteract some of the negative publicity and help get the word out that we are stronger than ever."

The website includes home pages for each of the 87 communities in the region; they are updated almost daily as local shops, services and attractions come back online. In the second week of January alone, 11 Seaside Heights businesses reopened, and at press time, two Shore towns -- Ocean Grove and Asbury Park -- had new, updated videos on the site.

The bureau also has partnered with New Jersey Transit on a campaign to bring day-trippers to the shore via rail from New York City and Northern New Jersey. "We lost rental homes, which will take a while to get rebuilt," notes Hilton,  "but we want to encourage guests to still come down, visit our beaches."

Hilton says the JSCVB will attend up to seven travel trade events this year, beginning with the New York Times' travel show, held in Manhattan last month, as well as two shows in Canada, which is a growing market for the Jersey Shore (inquiries from Canadians grew by 40 percent from 2011 to 2012). The bureau also will, for the first time, participate in the Philadelphia Flower Show in March.

As the bureau is funded in part by the state, and since the federal relief package was just passed, Hilton is not sure if his organization will get any special funding for further post-Sandy tourism marketing. "I think the state will give us some dollars; hopefully we will get some of the $50 billion in federal aid money to fund our outreach efforts," he says.

While leisure travel is the region's bread and butter, the Northern Shore has about 30 properties that handle large groups, including Ocean Place in Long Branch, with 254 guest rooms and 40,000 square feet of meeting space, and the 208-room Sheraton Eatontown, with 18 meeting rooms. According to the DMO, all the larger meeting venues reopened shortly after the storm. 

Hilton is optimistic that, by the time peak season hits, the shore will be able to accommodate an influx of visitors. "We have two to three months to get it ready; we are making it better than ever."

In the Boroughs
Cyclone roller  coaster

The Big Apple's worse-hit regions were in residential shorefront communities in the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, areas off most visitors' radar. In Brooklyn's Coney Island, a tourist attraction in the warmer months, the boardwalk sustained some damage, but amusements such as the landmark Cyclone roller coaster (above) were unharmed. -- L.A.G.

New York City: "We are open for business"

Statue of LibertyJust weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit, the borough of Manhattan, the main magnet for tourists and meeting attendees in New York City, bore few visible scars from the storm. As of press time, 98 percent of hotels, attractions and retailers affected by the storm had returned to normal, according to George Fertitta, president of NYC & Company, the DMO that represents the Big Apple. Just one tourist property (the Holiday Inn Express Wall Street) and some restaurants and shops immediately surrounding the downtown South Street Seaport -- which suffered flooding and damage when the East River breached its banks -- remained closed for repairs.

Two key attractions, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, also are closed due to storm-related damage. For a close-up view of those landmarks, NYC & Company is advising meeting planners to book a cruise on one of the private vessels that tour New York Harbor.

Despite these few closings, Fertitta says there's a general perception that Lower Manhattan is off-limits to visitors, partly fueled by images of the damage sustained in residential areas of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.

In response, the bureau has gone into full-court press mode. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Fertitta's team began a running inventory of what hotels and attractions were open or closed and communicated the details to tour operators, meeting planners and the bureau's partners via electronic newsletters and social media outlets, including  Facebook and a LinkedIn page specifically designed for planners.

Since the United Kingdom is the number-one international market for New York, the bureau sent a larger-than-normal contingency to attend the World Travel Market in London a week after the storm. "We communicated that we are open for business," says Chris Heywood, NYC & Company's first vice president of communications. "Normally I would have canceled after such a major crisis here, but we felt it was crucial to go."

While the bureau doesn't have statistics on how much tourism and meeting business has been lost due to the storm (the city sustained about $19 billion in overall damage), it reports a "slight loss of visitors" in November 2012, along with the last-minute cancellation of the Nov. 4 New York City Marathon, which generated $340 million in revenue in 2011. (The storm did not prevent the Big Apple from welcoming a record 52 million visitors in 2012, bringing some $55.3 billion to the city's economy.)

In terms of meetings, the storm forced the postponement of two events that had been scheduled at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center -- the International Security Conference & Exposition and the American Diabetes Association Diabetes Expo -- yet a total of 5.2 million delegates visited the Big Apple last year, an increase of 2 percent over 2011. The bureau anticipates another strong year for meetings and conventions in 2013.

Long Island: "We were blessed"

Although Hurricane Sandy destroyed 95,000 homes and businesses in New York's Long Island, R. Moke McGowan, president of the Hauppauge-based Long Island Convention & Visitors and Sports Commission, says, "We were blessed on the tourism and economic front; only one hotel that does a lot of group business, the 143-room Allegria in Long Beach, closed due to Sandy, and our museums, mansions, etc., made it through unharmed." Long Island has 300 full-service hotels and 29 large group properties; the Allegria reopened in December.

The main tourism issue for the region is beach erosion along the 118 miles of coastline. "The worst are resident-only beaches," notes McGowan. The major tourist beaches, Jones Beach and Robert Moses State Parks, suffered some erosion and damage to their boardwalks, but they are expected to be fully repaired and open for use by Memorial Day.

Post-Sandy, the bureau has focused on letting tour operators and planners know how little the storm affected Long Island's offerings. To assuage clients' worries, the LICVSC and several of its partners attended last November's World Travel Market in London, prepared with press statements and assessments of damage. For meetings, the sales department has been proactively reaching to clients since November, letting them know that venues and facilities are operating as usual.

"Most of the concern is from the international market, mainly from planners whose attendees are interested in pre- and post- visits here following their conventions and events in New York City," says McGowan.