Chamber to hold session on summer business

Thu, 09/06/2018 - 4:30pm
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Ed. note: This story has been updated. After press time, the location of the meeting was changed to The Spring House Hotel.

The Block Island Chamber of Commerce has scheduled a meeting at The Spring House for Tuesday, Sept. 11 at 5 p.m. to discuss how the past summer went as far as business is concerned, and what steps can or should be taken to maintain Block Island’s status as a premier tourist destination. The meeting is open to the public.

The basis of the discussion will be a survey the Chamber conducted recently, which was sent to members under the header: “Here are some factual reasons why we know tourism is down as of Aug. 25.”

It appears as though the rainy weather in June impacted business: “The Chamber has a people counter on our door and we are down 7,000 people for the month of June; however, July numbers are the same as last year’s.” 

Chamber President Kathy Szabo said final numbers for August — which were not included in the survey — started out quite slow but gained steam as the month progressed: 37,125 people passed through the door in August 2017 and was 33,000 this August. 

There are other indicators that business was less than what has been recorded in the past few years, according to the survey:

• Locker rentals are down

• Garbage cans have not had to be emptied as often

• Water and sewer usage is down 10 percent

• Fewer mooring rentals in the GSP this year

• Parking revenue at the mainland parking lots is down compared to prior years

The survey respondents also noted a particular thorn in the side of island businesses: the weather forecast. “The weather forecasters are failing to report our unique weather when giving forecasts in the region.”

The Chamber’s survey also revealed that hotels and inns registered with the Chamber “only began to have full occupancy beginning in August on weekends only… Hotels and inns are for the most part not full during the week.” Lack of full occupancy also comes with a specific context. The survey notes that in recent years, “102 rooms have been lost to closure versus 22 rooms gained in new construction or renovations.” 

Consumers using online hotel booking platforms are also “getting mixed signals… we have found that [the websites] are listing hotels as full, when they aren’t,” according to the survey. Retail shops and restaurants responded to the survey by stating that business is down from previous years. 

The survey notes that weddings are down and that “very few places have air conditioning and the internet is extremely slow.” 

The Chamber survey mentions that the last fully-researched look at Block Island’s tourism numbers was completed in March 2000 by Tim Tyrrell, of the Office of Travel, Tourism and Recreation at the University of Rhode Island. It was conducted from May 31 to Oct. 3, 1999, and paid for in part by the Block Island Tourism Council.

These were the early days of the internet, and according to the 2000 survey, the most powerful tool influencing whether someone visited the island was on the recommendation of “friends/relatives” (44.8 percent of the 756 people who responded to the survey); or simply because they had visited the island before (41.1 percent). The internet was cited by just 1.8 of all respondents as the primary influencer for their visit to the island 

Twenty years ago, visitors came primarily from Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and Massachusetts, in descending order. Eighty percent of the respondents said they traveled to the island by ferry, with 10 percent of those visitors saying they would be less likely to bring a car; while more than 32 percent of non-resident visitors said they would be less likely to bring a car.

The question of how people traveled to Block Island yielded a somewhat mysterious response: 82 percent of the respondents said they either took the ferry as a passenger or they brought their cars. Nine percent said they took a private boat; a combined three percent said they took either a private or commercial plane to get here; and the remaining six percent said they traveled here by “other means.” 

More than half of the respondents answered the question, “What do you feel could be done to improve your next Block Island experience?’ Of the nine categories comprising the responses, the most frequent answers were: “vehicular traffic and congestion concerns,” and “Public facilities and services needs.” These responses were followed closely by “No changes needed,” “Bike and pedestrian needs,” “Commercial services needed,” and “High prices concern.”