Summer is off to a strong start at Rehoboth Beach’s Blue Moon, one of the Delaware shore’s most renowned restaurants.
Bookings are way up. Manager Tim Ragan has marveled at all the patrons clicking “first-time diner” when making online reservations. And bartenders have noted a spike in IDs from New Jersey, not usually a major market for the 32-year-old eatery.
“It’s become very apparent that we have a lot of new people coming in who have never been to Rehoboth before,” Ragan said. “Nobody wants to profit from anyone’s misfortune, but it looks like it’s going to be an awesome year.”
Blue Moon’s new customers are tourists who typically vacation along the Jersey shore, where many beaches are still recovering from the $37 billion in damage caused by Hurricane Sandy’s pummeling in October. Seven months later, towns up and down the Mid-Atlantic are bracing for the storm’s next impact — a tidal shift in summer tourism that has New Jersey beaches dreading the ebb and resorts from Delaware to the Outer Banks eager for the flow.
Being careful not to gloat over another beach town’s misfortune, tourism officials and business owners are confident that Rehoboth Beach; Bethany Beach, Del.; and other unscathed spots will enjoy a significant influx of tourists who would normally be pointing their minivans toward New Jersey’s Manasquan, Mantoloking and Avalon.
“What’s really different this year is the number of guests calling from New York and New Jersey,” said T.J. Redefer, owner of Bethany Bay Realty, an agency specializing in smaller, upscale rental properties. “These are people I’ve never talked to before.”
The newcomers are full of questions, Redefer said, from which local beach towns are better for families to where the boardwalks are. Even, how do we get there?
“They want to know if it’s better to take the [Cape May-Lewes] ferry or drive around,” he said. (Answer: The ferry can be faster, but only if you time it just right.)
There is a lot of money riding on the choices these sun-and-sand refugees make. Almost a billion dollars in beach business could be displaced from normally jammed beaches in the Garden State this summer, according to a Rutgers University analysis, particularly in the hardest-hit points north of Atlantic City.
Although towns have rushed to replace the boardwalks and roller coasters Sandy swept to sea, many neighborhoods are still ringing with hammering and power saws as carpenters swarm over thousands of damaged beach houses.
“There just isn’t going to be the stock of rental inventory ready,” said Joseph Seneca, an economist at Rutgers’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. “There has been a tremendous amount of work done, but in some places, they are still in the early stages of rebuilding.”
Jersey isn’t giving up its beach denizens without a fight. At least three tourism campaigns are promoting the shore, including a $25 million “Stronger Than the Storm” promotion funded with federal relief money. They tout the many beaches south of Atlantic City, which were largely untouched by Sandy, and the pockets of recovery throughout the impact zone. This month, Gov. Chris Christie (R) appeared with Britain’s Prince Harry to inspect boardwalk repairs in Seaside Heights.
“We have 6,700 businesses open for business in Monmouth and Ocean counties, and more contacting me every week,” said Robert Hilton, head of the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau, which has launched a campaign called “The Shore is Open.”
“The next phase is to get the public to see what I see when I look out the window, that it’s okay to come back.”
Cherry Hill, N.J., resident John Jaczko, 43, has gotten the message. After seeing the ads every night on television, he plans to find a Jersey beach, even a battered one, for his family trip this year. “A lot of the shore is family-run, family-owned businesses,” Jaczko said. “They could go under with a bad year.”
Still, many of the displaced are looking farther south.
Requests for visitor guides from New York and New Jersey residents are up 15 percent from last year, according to the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce.
“We’re fielding calls from them every day,” said Harold Marmon, a Coldwell Banker agent who represents rental properties in Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach.
In North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Jersey shore regulars have been eager to book from Sun Realty’s stock of 1,200 beach houses strung between Corolla and Kitty Hawk, managers say. The proportion of customers from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania has jumped almost 10 percent from last summer, even though many of the renters have never before traveled below the sweet-tea line for a beach trip.
“They’re going to have a very different experience down here than they’ve had at some of the New Jersey beaches,” said Sun Realty marketing director Stuart Chamberlain. “No big boardwalks here, no high-rise hotels or condos. It kind of takes you back to the way beaches used to be.”
In Delaware, Redefer’s new clients have been gravitating to smaller, stylish properties, as opposed to sprawling beach houses (many of which are locked up by regulars up to a year in advance).
“What will be really interesting to see is, will they fall in love and want to come back?” he said.
Beach migration patterns run deep, with some families returning to the same rental house, the same mini-golf, the same crab shack summer after summer. When routines are disrupted, it presents an opportunity for other resorts to do a little delicate poaching in their neighboring markets.
Without mentioning Hurricane Sandy by name, Chamberlain’s company has been quietly promoting its Outer Banks offerings in some new areas. They’ve run ads in the editions of Redbook and Family Circle magazine that circulate in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and paid for online spots targeting Internet subscribers of Philadelphia-based Comcast.
“We’re not saying anything to play off the bad things that happened. We just want them to know we’re down here,” Chamberlain said. “We did the same thing after the gulf oil spill” in 2010.
Ocean City officials added additional weeks to their spring marketing and expanded their campaign to Pittsburgh. But tourism director Donna Abbott said that was more a function of a growing ad budget than a strategic grab for tourists displaced by Sandy.
“We compete in the same markets, anyway,” Abbott said. “We just wanted to make sure people knew we were open for business.”
Other beach towns might find Jersey partisans a tough crowd to convert. “There is an enormous brand loyalty to the Jersey shore,” said Seneca, the Rutgers economist. “There may some shifting south for a season or two, but it’s deeply ingrained.”
That’s fine with Lee Nettles, even though he’s the head of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. He’s seen enough heavy weather to sympathize with his counterparts farther north and is happy to send their customers home when the cleanup is done.
“I feel for them, man. We’ve been there,” Nettles said. “I’m rooting for New Jersey. I have confidence that those visitors that love those beaches will go back when they are ready.”