Some of those in Ontario County who depend on visitors are seeing a decline, while others are reporting flat to slight increases in business
CANANDAIGUA — For those in the tourism business in Ontario County — and it is big business — either 2017 has been the summer season that wasn’t, the summer that seems like most of the others or the endless summer with good news still to come.
Finger Lakes Visitors Connection President and CEO Valerie Knoblauch prefers the latter.
“Our season is not over at Labor Day,” said Knoblauch, who acknowledged that the summer got off to a rough and rainy start.
“Our season is yearlong,” Knoblauch said. “We just shift seasons. There is more.”
Some whose livelihoods also depend on out-of-town visitors are wondering when that will happen.
Guy Straw, who with his wife runs the Inn on the Main Bed and Breakfast, said he and others are experiencing a downturn this year.
Although occupancy is picking up this month for him, he said he and other bed-and-breakfast owners in the area are in the same slow-moving boat when it comes to business.
“Overall, we’re seeing less traffic,” Straw said.
Both Knoblauch and Canandaigua Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ethan Fogg have been hearing mixed messages from business owners. Some are on par or exceeding business from previous years while others are down.
“I don’t know the answer,” Straw said.
Here is why answers are important. To no one’s surprise, the tourism industry is a major economic driver all over New York, including the Finger Lakes, home of wineries, breweries, a host of natural attractions and more.
According to a 2016 economic report (looking back at 2015) completed by Oxford Economics, tourism in the Finger Lakes is a $2.9 billion industry, part of the $63.1 billion spent by travelers in all of New York during the study period.
In Ontario County, travelers spent just over $2 million that study period and about 60,000 workers in the industry earning about half of that, according to the report.
So if there is a decline in visitors, that can be crucial. And some are saying there is a decline in a certain group of tourists.
Attracting Canadian visitors to all of the attractions the Finger Lakes has to offer is like maple syrup on a double stack of pancakes — it makes everything that much better.
But, Knoblauch said, that has been a difficult prospect — and made even more difficult by a stronger American dollar and federal immigration policies.
For example, $100 in Canadian currency is worth $79.87 in the U.S., according to CoinMill.com, an online currency rate conversion calculator.
A year ago, an attempt to woo Canadian travelers here for the New York maple season, “More Loot for Your Loonies,” was less than successful because there was so much resistance to the dollar, Knoblauch said.
While Canadians with money to spend are starting to come back, the average traveler just wanting a getaway to the U.S. has not returned in great numbers, Knoblauch said.
“It’s money and a frugal Canadian psychology that we always have dealt with,” Knoblauch said.
Also playing a part in the dip in Canadian tourists is the border-crossing experience. Federal immigration policies and stepped-up enforcement at the border is creating questions in the minds of travelers, Knoblauch said.
Is it worth the effort? Is it easier to go somewhere else?
And for some, they are dissuaded not only by the process, but from a non-welcoming psychology that pervades, Knoblauch said.
“The general person thinks it’s going on at the Mexican border, but it’s also going on at the Canadian border,” Knoblauch said. “With enforcement being stepped up, everybody is slowed down and inhibited: ‘I want to go on vacation, but first I have to get through this guard system.’”
At Eastview Mall in Victor, General Manager Mike Kauffman has noticed a leveling off of Canadian traffic, which is not a huge part of the market, but significant enough where its presence is felt.
“When they come, they spend,” Kauffman said. “It’s not growing, but it’s not dropping off.”
The Finger Lakes Visitors Connection is working with the “I Love New York” people on a number of initiatives so that the county and the rest of the Finger Lakes region doesn’t drop out of the minds of our northern neighbors. Next month, 15 Canadian tour operators will be coming here to learn more about what the region has to offer.
“We’re not giving up on that market,” Knoblauch said. “Convincing them to come has been difficult, but you don’t want to get out of the market. You want to keep telling them about yourself.”
So, there is the bad news, but the good news is this: Not only are some listening, but they are willing to put up with a few obstacles to visit here.
Just on Friday, a Canadian couple called Straw to let him know they were coming, but were experiencing a lengthy delay at the border. They’d be there, when they got there.
“I think it’s a hassle,” Straw said.
At least the travelers had sunshine and a summery forecast to look forward to when they arrived. As everyone knows, that hasn’t been the case for much of the summer.
Rainy day feelings
No one can control the weather, but excuse Knoblauch and others in the industry for wishfully thinking someone could.
“For awhile, I joked about having the seven plagues of tourism marketing,” Knoblauch said.
Denise Chaapel, manager of the Canandaigua Business Improvement District and owner of the Sweet Expressions candy store on Main Street, has had to cancel four events in the summer concert series. Another one was forced to move to an indoor location because of weather.
While the sun shined bright for a scheduled concert this Saturday, weather has not been a friend of outdoor events, Chaapel said.
Still, the recent Canandaigua Art and Music Festival drew huge crowds, she said, and that despite a microburst that affected artist booths and visitors on the first day of the event.
Worse, the poor weather seems to have hit every Saturday, but the Canandaigua Farmers Market, which is open Saturday mornings, has been successful, she said.
“There were a couple of Saturdays when the rain was coming in sideways, but people were still coming anyway,” Chaapel said.
Donafaye St. John, co-owner of the Sutherland House Victorian Bed and Breakfast, said she has seen a pretty good drop in business so far this season, and like others, is not sure why.
“I think weather has something to do with it,” St. John said.
Rain does have an impact, Knoblauch said, although its impact comes more from dampening of spirits. Her job, as well as the job of others in the region, is to tell their stories and convince the people who come in and want to play on Canandaigua Lake that there is much more to see and do.
“There are good places to go if it does rain,” Knoblauch said. “Most of us don’t melt. In my opinion, we, as a society, need to buck up. It doesn’t hurt us if we get rained on.”
After all, when it rains, people shop. Kauffman said his numbers are up slightly. Ontario County Director of Finance Mary Gates said sales tax revenue for the first two quarters of this year are higher than the same period last year.
Chaapel said her numbers at the candy shop are up, particularly on weekends.
“That tells me tourism is doing well,” Chaapel said, although again, noting that what helps some hurts others. “The rain has been brutal and hurt us daytripping.”
Betters days ahead
Fogg said challenges are faced every year in the tourism business, as no two years are ever the same in the tourism business.
Remember last year, there was no rain and the region faced drought conditions. This year, because of the devastating fire that destroyed Nolan’s restaurant at the beginning of the summer, other eateries are seeing a boost they may not have seen otherwise, he said.
That’s why he likens the local tourism economy to an ecosystem, ever churning and changing and hopefully never stagnant. During normal times, a couple may dine out at a $40 a plate kind of place. When times are tougher, they instead go to a $25 a plate place. But they still go out.
What is encouraging is what he hears from visitors, which should come as no surprise to long-timers or those new to the business. They like the retail, they like the restaurants and they like being able to walk, he said.
And if they're here, many will find something they like doing, even if it's not something they planned.
“I know the guests I’ve spoken with are enjoying their time here,” Fogg said.
Knoblauch, citing a hotel industry report, acknowledged that June was a rough start and in July, occupancy was down. But, she said, it was still at 94 percent.
“Would they like 100 percent? Yes,” she said, noting that next month is showing a potential increase in bookings over previous years.
St. John is counting on visitors coming here in October. And Straw said that while Canadian tourism seems to be down, he has seen an influx of visitors from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which is huge this year.
“I think they’re just discovering the area,” Straw said, mentioning a conversation he had with visitors from our southern neighbors. “They can’t wait to come back now.”
As long as people keep coming steadily, Knoblauch said she can take small blips in numbers, up or down.
“What I like for Ontario County is slow and steady,” Knoblauch said.
And with wineries and craft breweries gearing up for the fall, and the festivals, fall leaves and, eventually, skiing coming too, many are hopeful that if tourism numbers are flat or lagging now, they’ll pick up soon enough, for everyone.
When Christen Smith, the Visitors Connection’s new director of communications and marketing, was asked what comes after rain, she answered quickly and optimistically.