Driving numbers: Regional travel strong this year, but with some altered behavior

The water bumper boats and carousel at Fun 'A Rama on Canada Street in Lake George remained motionless, lacking visitors on a summer afternoon, Thursday, July 21, 2022.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

The water bumper boats and carousel at Fun 'A Rama on Canada Street in Lake George remained motionless, lacking visitors on a summer afternoon, Thursday, July 21, 2022.

LAKE GEORGE – The Haywards have traveled to Lake George every summer for more than 50 years. The Dutchess County retirees say they have never missed a year, not even during the height of the pandemic, when they traveled to the lake and stayed in a camper they’ve since sold.

On a 90-degree day last week, the Haywards were seated in camp chairs under a tree near the boat launch at Lake George Beach. They had been sitting there so long, enjoying the view of puffy clouds floating above the clear blue lake backed by forested slopes, they said a biker half-jokingly offered to come back later just to make sure they were OK in the heat.

The otherwise relaxing day for the Haywards also happened to be Janet Hayward’s 69th birthday. And while they planned to eat dinner at the Barnsider Smokehouse BBQ that evening, their agenda was relatively sparse. They would soon head back to their room at the Fort William Henry Hotel to escape the afternoon sun.

Part of the reason for the light agenda was that they’ve done much of what there is to do on the lake in past years. They’ve rented boats with their kids and grandkids, they’ve taken the steamship cruises.

“Now that the kids are grown, we relax,” said Janet Hayward.

Still, the Haywards’ minimal plans for this year’s Lake George trip seemed to be indicative of a broader mid-season travel trend in upstate New York, based on numbers collected last week from state agencies and local tourism bureaus, and on interviews with travelers, business owners, shop employees and others in Lake George and Saratoga Springs.

The reporting showed travelers coming to the region, but many are altering their behaviors in money-saving ways once they arrive. Analyzing the numbers also points to the fact that specific activities, such as concerts, festivals and sporting events, are an added incentive for visitors, with ticket purchases and other commitments made months ago motivating summer travel, regardless of gas prices, inflation or the current status of the pandemic.

“From our national surveys that were done around the Memorial Day and July 4 holidays, we are seeing a return to ‘normal’ summer driving behavior, despite high gas prices,” said Eric Stigberg, managing director of marketing, public and government affairs at AAA Northway, who did not have local travel data available. “It appears that there is plenty of pent-up demand and people are traveling despite gas prices, but they may be looking to save elsewhere. Shorter drive trips, staying at a hotel as opposed to a condo or resort, eating fast food as opposed to fine dining are some examples.”

They’re here

Across the region, hotels are having a strong summer. In Warren County, hotel demand in June saw a 7.7% increase compared with last year. Year-to-date, the demand is up 19.2%, according to Visit Lake George. June occupancy was up 8.6% over last year, while year-to-date occupancy is up 20.5% over last year. All that translates to more hotel revenue in Warren County — up 12.9% for June compared with last June, and an increase of 30.7% year–to-date.

Saratoga hotels have seen similarly robust numbers, according to data supplied by Discover Saratoga. Countywide, hotel occupancy in June was up 14.9%, while the average daily rate was up 18%, from $135.43 to $159.86. The revenue per available room was up nearly 36%, from $83.52 to $113.23. Saratoga Springs’ occupancy rate in June was up 17.2%, with average daily rates up nearly 20% to $182.95 and revenue on those rooms jumping more than 40%, from $95.26 to $133.43.

“We’ve seen a lot of leisure travelers in the last few months enjoying the summer season,” said Darryl Leggieri, president of Discover Saratoga. “Gas prices and inflation don’t seem to be inhibiting them too much. There seems to be a good amount of confidence as people are making their way to Saratoga Springs.”

People don’t seem to mind sleeping on the ground, either. Attendance at state Department of Environmental Conservation campgrounds is on pace with trends prior to the pandemic, when DEC saw record visitation, according to a DEC spokesperson. So far this summer, nearly 521,000 people have camped at DEC facilities compared with more than 1.3 million all of last year and 977,237 the year prior, according to DEC’s provided numbers.

Meanwhile, Fulton County has seen solid traffic as well, with more than 500 guests stopping for information at the Fulton County Visitor’s Center, according to Anne Boles, director of tourism development at the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“Nothing has decreased,” Boles said. “It has been steady compared to last year.”

What are they doing?

Erin McKernon is used to psyching herself up ahead of July 4. An assistant supervisor with DEC at the Lake George Beach boat launch, McKernon said she typically spends July 3 on her couch, bracing for the crowds that she’ll see the next day. Last year, McKernon said there were 17 boats lined up outside the gates at 6 a.m. This year, there were just a few.

In fact, the boat launch saw only 780 boats this July 4 compared with the typical 1,000 boats, said McKernon, who is working her fifth season at the launch.

“Traffic has been much lower this year. It’s just like, where is everyone?”

Nick Lamando, manager at Hall’s Boat Corporation, which provides boat dockage, storage, maintenance and repair on antique wood boats, has noticed a similar decrease in boat traffic on Lake George.

“I’d say it’s down 25% from what I was used to seeing,” said Lamando, who has worked on the lake for 16 years. “During the pandemic we were busier. The only thing people could do was go out on their boat because it was the only way they could get separated from people. The general consensus from everybody that works on the lake is that traffic seems to be down.”

Fuel costs are the likely culprit, Lamando said. New York’s gas price was at $4.62 at the time of writing. More expensive fuel roughly translates to an additional $100 for each afternoon out on the boat, Lamando said.

Economic factors seem to be influencing people’s behaviors in a variety of ways in Lake George. That means even if families are likely to enjoy a day on the sand and in the water at Million Dollar Beach, which was crowded on a 90-degree day this week, families may skip the boat trip or that scoop of ice cream.

“We are talking to people who are saying that some of those economic factors are playing into things like how often people are eating out,” said Gina Mintzer, executive director of the Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce and CVB. “Are they going to eat ice cream every day or go to a restaurant every day? The answer is they are not.”

Rick Connors, manager for the parking lot that services the Lake George Steamboat Company, said he’s seen decreased traffic this year, especially compared with last year, when Lake George may have benefitted from being a largely outdoors-based regional attraction.

“I haven’t looked at the exact numbers but we had a banner season last season and I’m not beating those numbers right now,” said Connors, who has been working at the lot since 1984. “Last year was the best year I’ve ever done.”

Shop owners and employees in Lake George say they are noticing decreased foot traffic compared to last year.

“I’m seeing less people, definitely. Prior years it was busier because a lot of people didn’t want to deal with the COVID testing, so everyone stayed in New York [state], but now that there are less restrictions, everyone is going everywhere,” said Victoria Hayden, owner of Hawaiian Shaved Ice.

Hayden said business is down about 25% compared with last year. She said conversations about prices are unavoidable.

“I’ve heard people talking about the gas prices, food pricing — everything is up,” Hayden said.

Brooke Willett, 18, has been working in Lake George for four years.

“I feel like there are a lot less people than I’m used to and I don’t know why. I think maybe just because things are getting more expensive, travel is more expensive,” she said from behind the counter of an empty gift shop along Beach Road, where she spends many days of the summer.

Mintzer said competition is likely a big factor for a place like Lake George, as some of the village visitors — think day-trippers and lake house renters — have simply gone elsewhere.

“This year you have a lot more competition back. You couldn’t go as many places last year as you can this year, so if you have the resources you might travel to another state versus staying closer to home,” she said. “Last year we saw so many New York state people that might have [otherwise] gone further afield.”

Events can draw a crowd

Less than 30 miles south of Lake George, shop owners and workers in the heart of Saratoga Springs said this year has seen an especially strong start to summer.

“It’s a big increase from the past few years with COVID and everything,” said Jerritt Chura, head chef at Wheatfields Restaurant & Bar on Broadway. “People are getting out and spending money again. It’s great.” Chura said dinner service this summer is up to more than 300 a night compared with roughly 200 last year. 

Other businesses are noticing a similar trend.  

“June was probably my best June ever and more than what I typically do in August,” said Heidi Owen West, owner of three shops downtown.

West said the increase in foot traffic coincides with the return of concerts at Saratoga Performing Arts Center and rolls right through track season. So one major factor helping the Spa City might be that a lot of its tourism is tied to scheduled events such as concerts and the Saratoga Race Course, for which people usually plan ahead.

“I think people have made their plans, and there are so many things to do in Saratoga Springs that are very unique,” said Leggieri of Discover Saratoga. “Folks have planned their vacations for some time.”

The track is off to a fast start. Leggieri said the New York Racing Association reported a 10% increase in paid opening weekend attendance this year over last year, from 94,078 in 2021 to 103,254 in 2022. The on-track handle for opening weekend this year also saw an increase over last year’s opening weekend, from $14.39 million in 2021 to $17.06 million in 2022, which is an increase of 18.5% this year, according to Leggieri.

For what it’s worth, Lake George has also seen an increase in events this year, be they business trips, weddings, softball tournaments or other activities.

“Events are back, which is a great underbelly of our overall tourism economy,” Mintzer said.

Events seem to be thriving across upstate.

For example, the eight-night, 400-mile Cycle the Erie Canal tour was at a full capacity of 750 for the first time since 2019, according to Dylan Carey, Greenway Program director at Parks and Trails New York. Participants traveled from 40 states and a few countries.

“Omicron surged through the winter, but I think people were still hopeful about the season, so they went ahead and planned things and thought, ‘OK, we’re going to do it.’ Then the next surge started to happen, but events are already on,” said Jean Mackay, director of communications and outreach for the Erie Canalway Heritage Fund. “The events really are a big draw to visitors to the canal and canalside communities. Last year the events started to trickle back and this year we’re seeing a robust offering. Anecdotally, we’re seeing way more events and hearing from people that those events have been well attended.”

This was the year?

Identifying travel trends, especially midseason, is no doubt more art than science. For instance, while one shop owner in Lake George said July 4 was busy, an employee at another store said the holiday was relatively dead.

And while boat traffic on Lake George seems to be down this summer, early season boat traffic on the Eastern Canal system is up 17%, from 11,779 to 13,795. (A spokesperson for the New York state Canal Corporation said a few short-term lock closures and other issues last year may have impacted the numbers.)

Roxene Levesque and her family didn’t necessarily fit this year’s upstate travel trend. Just feet from where the Haywards sat watching the water, Levesque helped her husband launch their boat — one of just 50 or so boats to depart from Lake George Beach so far that day.

The Levesques traveled three hours from Quebec with their two older children, and unlike the Haywards, the Levesques hadn’t taken a vacation in a few years and weren’t personally committed to visiting Lake George or attending any specific event.

“We just said it was the year. We work a lot, so we just said we’re taking a week off,” said Levesque, who also said she and her husband work in transportation and therefore intimately understand the impact of high gas prices.

Their plan was to launch their black motorboat and simply enjoy time out on the water with family.

“It’s nice weather, a nice place,” Levesque said. “We’re just going for it.”

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

Categories: News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

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