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More Expected to ‘Vacation in Their Backyard’

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg says people will still vacation, despite a sagging economy and soaring gas prices, but they may change how and where they vacation.

They call it a ‘staycation.’

That’s a term gaining increasing acceptance and use within convention and visitors bureaus, and it is used to describe a trip in which the vacationers don’t leave what would be considered their own backyard — or venture far from it, anyway.

While the vocabulary word is relatively new (if not exactly accepted by Webster), the concept of the stay-at-or-near-home vacation certainly isn’t. And it becomes increasingly popular when the economy slows, when gasoline is expensive or hard to come by, or during extreme conditions like the aftermath of 9/11, when people simply didn’t want to get on an airplane.

With summer, and peak tourism season, nearing, the prospects for people staycationing are providing some glimmers of hope for what is likely to be a challenging year for hospitality-related businesses, as the economy continues to struggle, gas prices approach $4 per gallon, and the media is relentless in its gloom-and-doom coverage.

“Right now, ‘flat’ is the term most businesses are using to describe conditions,” said Michelle Goldberg, director of Marketing for the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (GSCVB). She told BusinessWest that the sagging economy and soaring gas prices are contributing to the tepid results, but they may eventually help foster some improvement to overall performance in this sector.

“People are still going to vacation,” she explained, noting that leisure time is part of American culture and, while not recession-proof, is nonetheless resilient. “But they may change how they vacation. They may not go as far, stay as long, or spend as much. As part of this, people from this area or places like Boston and New York may discover that there is plenty to do here, and we’re not that far away.”

And there already appears to be some evidence that they’re doing just that.

Dean O’Keefe, vice president of Marketing for the Basketball Hall of Fame, told BusinessWest that visitation during the recent April school vacation week was up perhaps 10% from the same period a year ago. He doesn’t have enough hard evidence to identify gas prices, the economy, and a resulting desire to stay closer to home as primary reasons for the increase, but feels confident that it somehow contributed to it.

“I can’t say with any certainty that it helped,” he said of the one-two punch of the economy and gas prices. “But I know it didn’t hurt.”

Looking ahead to summer, the Hall’s busiest season, he said officials at the shrine hope the trend continues. “For every door that closes, another one opens,” he said, noting that, while the Hall expects it to be more difficult to draw visitors from great distances this summer (and it does see license plates from all 50 states), logic dictates that it will be easier to draw more from the Northeast, where the Hall traditionally attracts more than 60% of annual visitor volume.

Meanwhile, a similar April school vacation week increase was reported at Yankee Candle. Lynn Brunelle, flagship store marketing director, said the South Deerfield attraction recorded a noticeable boost in attendance over April vacation week in 2007, and she attributed this at least in part to a stay-closer-to-home mindset on the part of parents also taking that week off, as so many of them do.

“With gas at these prices, people are thinking twice about long drives, and they’re also thinking twice about getting on a plane and going somewhere,” she said. “Many of them are opting for places they can get to in an hour or less.”

Like others we spoke with, Brunelle said the current conditions and desire to take vacations closer to home won’t prompt any real changes in how Yankee Candle markets itself — it has always focused mostly on day-trippers — but they may give the message more resonance.

“I think it will hit home with more people,” she explained, adding that, given the current conditions, more travelers will be pinching pennies and, in general, putting more emphasis on value.

Drive Time

Goldberg agreed, and said that, overall, the GSCVB won’t have to make any serious adjustments to its marketing strategy. The bureau has always targeted most of its marketing dollars for so-called ‘feeder markets,’ or regions within a few hours of the Pioneer Valley, she explained, adding that the hope this year is that such areas will feed the region more visitors.

“Our basic message is the same, but now, it takes on more meaning,” she said. “When you’re facing higher gas prices, higher food prices, and, in general, the dollar just isn’t going as far as it did, you look at how you vacation and where, and maybe make some adjustments,”

Of course, other regions, visitors bureaus, and individual tourist attractions are also going to be looking toward the staycation as some kind of silver lining, said Mary Kay Wydra, executive director of the GSCVB. “Every area will be taking the same basic approach — they’ll be urging people to be a ‘tourist in their own backyard.’”

Thus, the local visitors bureau will be stressing ease of access to the Pioneer Valley, and the fact that people can do a lot in a day — or, preferably, several days.

“Our primary mission is still to drive room nights,” she explained, adding that while day-trippers are certainly welcome and encouraged, the GSCVB will train its marketing dollars on those feeder markets, such as Boston, New York State, Connecticut, and Northern New England, and urge people there to come here, as opposed to someplace farther away.

Michelle Pinkerton, director of Marketing for Six Flags, said the Agawam amusement park has always drawn heavily from across the Northeast, and hopes to see more visitors from this region to offset, or more than offset, any downturn in attendance from the state of the economy.

Like Brunelle, she said Six Flags won’t change its marketing appreciably, but hopes and expects that the message will reach more people and resonate.

“And our message is value — ‘Disney in your own backyard,’” she said. “People can spend eight hours here and do all kinds of things. Not too many places can say that.”

Linda Post, founding director of the Paradise City Arts Festival, which will stage the first of its two shows in 2008 on Memorial Day weekend, told BusinessWest that, while the economy and higher gas prices impact everyone psycologically, they probably won’t keep many who make regular pilgrimages to Northampton and the arts festival from doing so this year. But what they might do is prompt some who traditionally go away that weekend to stay in the Valley.

“We could help convince some people to say, ‘there’s a lot to do here over Memorial Day,’” she explained, “and keep them closer to home.”

But while there is hope that more people will vacation in their own backyard, some are not sure if any boost from that phenomenon will completely offset losses resulting from people in other regions deciding to stay in their backyards this vacation season.

“It will likely be a wash, more or less,” said Curt Shumway, president of the Hampshire Hospitality Group, which owns and operates several hotels and lodges in the Northampton-Hadley-Amherst corridor. “It should help some, but it’s hard to say how much.”

Shumway said that, overall, most area hospitality-related businesses are holding their own in the current challenging conditions, and he puts his hotels in that category. Business is off slightly from projections made months ago, he continued, adding that analysis of the economy’s impact is clouded by conjecture about whether the region now has too much room inventory.

“There’s been a lot of building in recent years, and we’ve contributed to that,” he said, referencing a new Marriott the company opened recently on Route 9 in Hadley. “People are doing OK, but we may have built too much.”

Staying Power

Wydra told BusinessWest that, for most Americans, the vacation is considered a birthright.

“People are still going to take them despite what’s happening with the economy,” she said, adding, as others did, that the location, length, and budget for the leisure time may be adjusted.

Which brings her back to the staycation. It’s likely that most outside of her profession have never heard of the term, she said, but that’s not what’s important.

What is important is that people consider the practice — whatever they want to call it. If they do, a year that doesn’t outwardly offer significant promise could nonetheless yield some solid results.v

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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