A BREEZE: The schooner Madeleine sails past Hammersmith Farm, site of the 1953 Newport wedding reception of John F. Kennedy.
COURTESY BILLY BLACK
By Rhonda J. Miller PBN Staff Writer
Tourists beat a steady path to Rhode Island during the summer 2013, from beaches to cultural events and historic sites. While early estimates show a modest uptick overall, the approximations are, at the very least, a promising sign in one segment of the Ocean State’s sluggish economy.
Even before the official numbers for the summer season come in – it takes two months for them to be tabulated – early season counts and informal estimates show Rhode Island’s tourism industry holding its own or strengthening in some regions.
“For fiscal year 2013, which ended June 30, we had an 18 percent jump in hotel tax revenue over fiscal year 2012,” said Jessica Willi, executive director of the Block Island Tourism Council.
Mid-July into late August were very busy on Block Island, with the traditionally slow last week in August still busy this year, she said.
Block Island has seen a substantial increase in hotel tax revenue since 2010, with an upswing in 2011, a nearly flat year in 2012 and then the dramatic jump into 2013, she said.
“Travel is all about disposable income. Here on Block Island, and in talking to people in the tourism industry across the country, it seems we’re getting back to prerecession levels,” Willi said.
A growing appetite for cultural events, and Rhode Island’s wide palette of offerings, is a trend tourism leaders credit for some of the steady stream of visitors to the state.
“Our summer baseline is mostly meetings and conventions, along with some leisure travelers. We’re seeing, in the past several years, that programming draws people in,” said Kristen Adamo, spokesperson for the Providence-Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“Cultural and artistic programming kind of fills in our leisure niche. Always, they come for WaterFire,” said Adamo. “They also come for events like the July Fourth fireworks and philharmonic at India Point, for ethnic festivals, for the AS220 Foo Fest and for the [Rhode Island School of Design] Museum.”
Hotel occupancy for Providence was 78 percent in June 2013, down slightly from about 81 percent in June 2012, when several unusually large conventions filled rooms, according to Adamo.
Occupancy in Providence hotels was about 77 percent in July 2013, up from about 71 percent in July 2012.
Hotels in Providence had more than a 90 percent occupancy every Saturday night in July 2013, a promising sign, since Saturday nights are generally booked by leisure travelers, she said.
Scientifically oriented conventions are a big segment of Providence hotel bookings, Adamo said. July conferences included the Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives, which booked 1,008 hotel-room nights, and the American Society of Plant Biologists, which booked 2,732 hotel-room nights.
August proved to be no slouch for conventions in Providence, with one conference alone, the International Association for Identification, sometimes called real-life “CSI,” booking 4,621 hotel-room nights, said Adamo.
Newport will see at least a small increase in tourism for this past summer, although the tourism season in the seaside city is far from over, with September and October traditionally two of the busiest months, said Evan Smith, president and CEO of Discover Newport, a business name used by the Newport County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We had a slow start in June, but we were really helped out by some good weather in July and August,” said Smith.
Discover Newport looks at tourism through the lens of seven categories: dining, lodging, attractions, shopping, recreation, transportation and special events.
“In June, almost all seven of those categories were influenced by poor weather, but as the summer progressed, Mother Nature was working with us,” said Smith.
Discover Newport is funded by the lodging tax.
“So far, we’re right around that 2 percent [lodging tax] increase over last year and I think the hotels had a strong August, so we may be up more than 2 percent over last year,” said Smith.
A standout in Newport tourism has been the mansions, he said.
Innovative programming and activities, an excellent marketing plan and the undeniable quality of the mansions all contributed to the standout year, said Smith.
“There’s always something new at the mansions. They have a flower show, a food and wine festival, really interesting lectures and they’re adding new languages on the headsets for the tours,” said Smith.
Summer tourism was strong overall in the 11 towns and many miles of beaches in the territory of the South Kingstown-based South County Tourism Council, said President and CEO Myrna George.
“My sense is that we’re up about 7 percent or 8 percent over last year, even though we don’t have the final numbers yet,” said George.
“We’ve had extraordinarily wonderful weather for the last two summers and that combined with some more consumer confidence to give us a bit of a bounce for the past two years,” said George.
“In addition to our beautiful beaches, I think part of it is the array of offerings, from a five-star hotel like the Ocean House to lots of lodging choices along I-95 to fabulous bed-and-breakfasts.”
Regional tourism councils are a major factor in keeping visitors coming in for the wide variety of seaside, culinary, historic and cultural attractions in the state, but that’s not enough, from George’s perspective.
“The state division of tourism exists on a meager stipend from the [R.I.] Economic Development Corporation,” said George. “The state division has been hobbled compared to the rest of the states in the nation. We would be even more successful if we had a strong state division of tourism.”
Some regions depend substantially on state tourism marketing.
“We don’t have a large promotional budget, so we rely on our state’s overall tourism campaign,” said Bob Billington, CEO and founder of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, based in Pawtucket.
“We depend on the state’s advertising to get people to say, ‘Oh, Rhode Island, I’ve got to see what’s going on there,” said Billington. “We invest in programming to bring visitors to Blackstone Valley.”
The boat tour of the Blackstone River is big draw, Billington said. Other attractions luring visitors include freshwater lakes for swimming, the increasingly popular bicycle trail along the Blackstone River, the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket and historic Slater Mill.
“We’re up more than 5 percent this year over last year, just in hotel occupancy rates through June,” said Billington. That’s based on nine hotels in the region.
“July and August numbers will be better, so we’ll probably be close to 6 percent or 7 percent over last year,” said Billington.
“We’re getting good visibility and we’re in an upswing,” said Billington. “And we’re not just a summer destination.” •