Tourism agencies eye gas costs

When the Arkell Museum reopened last September after completing a $10 million expansion project, the
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When the Arkell Museum reopened last September after completing a $10 million expansion project, the art gallery connected to the Canajoharie Library was not the only thing that got bigger. Its marketing reach also broadened.

In the months running up to its reopening, the Arkell expanded its marketing efforts beyond the Mohawk Valley and Capital Region to the Catskills and Berkshires. And now as the museum marches toward its first summer season, it is not reeling in its farther flung marketing lines — even as record high gas prices threaten to curtail tourists’ driving.

“We certainly do expect to have a very busy summer,” said Arkell Director Eric Trahan.

With the price of gas venturing deeper into uncharted territories, tourism agencies in the Capital Region and beyond are making various bets on how consumer driving habits will change this spring and summer. Although rising gas prices to date have done little to reduce driving, that might change if spring prices reach $4 per gallon, as projected.

The state’s I Love New York program is gambling that high gas prices will not deter out-of-state consumers from driving up to 300 miles into the Empire State. The promotional arm of the Empire State Development Corp. wants to launch marketing campaigns in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

“In previous years, the I Love NY campaign ran mostly within New York state. Starting last year, the campaign began to target Canadians in Toronto. With new funding, the campaign will reach out more broadly to the surrounding region to bring new tourism dollars into the state,” ESDC Chief Marketing Officer Thomas Ranese said in an e-mail Wednesday.

“Given current economic conditions, the campaign is designed to draw more visitors to New York state as consumers look to take vacations within a reasonable, affordable driving distance,” he added.

I Love New York is seeking an additional $4 million for its 2008 budget, which would bring its total to $20 million. This spring, the agency, with the help of the New York advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, will “reinvigorate” the “I Love New York” brand in a way designed to better reflect the entire state and not just New York City.

The agency is also looking to expand on the partnerships it formed last autumn with airlines and rental car companies to offer discounted transportation services in the state, according to Ranese.

At the same time, the Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce plans to step up promotional efforts in Schenectady, Troy and Poughkeepsie. The chamber is betting that consumers in those areas will be more inclined to travel to Lake George than to the Jersey shore or Cape Cod, said chamber Director Luisa Sherman.

The Albany County Convention and Visitors Center is not shrinking its traditional marketing radius of 300 miles. But if gas’ price upswing does not relent, the Albany tourism agency might start emphasizing the convenience and affordability of traveling to county attractions. The agency has not stressed that point in promotional initiatives since the early 1980s, said center President Michele Vennard.

“[Tourism] is looking fairly good at the moment despite the concern everyone has about the price of gas. People don’t stop traveling. They adjust,” said Gordon Lattey, the administrator of the New York State Network of Tourism Promoting Agencies in Troy.

At the Arkell, Trahan said attendance at the museum 55 miles west of Albany should not greatly be affected by the summer gas prices. He said its clientele tend to be able to absorb higher prices. The museum should also receive a boost from the drawing power of Winslow Homer, whose paintings will be featured in a special exhibit that opens in July.

“I think it’s going to be a strong summer season,” said Michael Hoffman, president of Turf Hotels in Latham. Although Hoffman said business was slow this winter in the Albany area, where Hoffman owns a Holiday Inn Express and Homewood Suites, it was surprisingly strong at his Lake George Holiday Inn. In June, he plans to open a Hampton Inn & Suites in Saratoga Springs.

“I don’t think people will change their plans because of an extra 10 bucks” worth of gas, Hoffman said.

The U.S. Energy Information Agency Tuesday said the nation’s monthly average gas price will peak this spring at $3.50 per gallon. But that price could cross the $4 threshold in some regions.

On Wednesday, gas was selling in the Capital Region at an average $3.33 per gallon, up 24 percent from a year earlier, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report.

For the first time in about four years, the U.S. lodging industry’s average 12-month room supply growth in January outpaced room demand growth. At the same time, the industry’s occupancy rate slipped 0.2 point to 63.1 percent, according to a Smith Travel Research report released Tuesday at the New York State Hospitality & Tourism Association’s annual meeting in Albany Tuesday.

Due to many hotels being converted into condominiums and the slow development of new hotels, New York’s 12-month average room demand growth outpaced its room supply growth. That trend helped the state’s 12-month average occupancy rate increase 1.6 percent in January to 71.8 percent, according to the Hendersonville, Tenn.-based Smith Travel.

The Albany-Schenectady area ended January with an occupancy rate of 45 percent, down 4.3 percent from a year earlier. During the same period, the area’s average daily rate rose 3.4 percent to $92.78. The opening of several new hotels last year might have affected January’s lower occupancy rate.

Smith Travel Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing Vail Brown said the state lodging industry’s demand momentum should play in its favor as the nation’s economy slows down. But higher gas prices will likely impact some aspects of travel statewide.

“It’s not going to have much impact on your business traveler. It will have more impact on the leisure traveler,” said Brown.

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