There are a few immutable facts about summer at the Jersey Shore: Birch beer goes with a slice of pizza, parking will either be more expensive or farther away than you want it, and nothing is more important than the weather.
The summer of 2018 seemed to prove that last point. Most tourism officials and business owners say the final numbers have not yet been counted, but at this point, it looks like a booming economy, strong consumer confidence and a surge in visitors from Canada still added up to a mediocre year for local businesses.
Most point the finger at the weather, and the occasional off-target weather forecasts.
Diane Wieland, the tourism director for Cape May County, said the summer of 2018 fell short of what shore merchants and other businesses wanted to see. “I don’t think it was the banner year we were all hoping for,” she said.
Just the threat of rain for a Friday or Saturday night pushed people from the boardwalk into the town, said Wieland. That likely helped the restaurant and stores on Cape May’s Washington Street pedestrian mall.
Wieland said the summer of 2018 was far from a washout. “I’ve heard July was good and August was stronger,” she said. “And I’m hearing reports of a great Labor Day weekend.”
Along those lines, Wieland said, the aviation history museum at the Cape May County Airport, Naval Air Station Wildwood, reported an exceptional year.
Wieland said the June occupancy tax, a good indicator or how many visitors have come to the county, was up slightly from the year before.
“That’s a surprise because June was horrible, weather-wise,” she said.
This summer had a lot to live up to.
“The last three or four years have been record-setters, from Ocean City to Cape May including Avalon. This year might fall slightly short because June was so rainy,” said Scott Wahl, Avalon’s borough administrator.
Denise Palek, owner of the Lollypop Motel in Wildwood, said her town has had a decline of weeklong visits in recent years.
“We’re trying to bring back the seven-night stay to Wildwood. Wildwood’s kind of fading out into a long weekend town what I’m trying to do is encourage them to come back and do a seven-night stay, like Ocean City has Saturday-to-Saturday only. It used to be that way here.”
Earlier starts to the school year at colleges and the Philadelphia school system also took a bite out of the end of August for many summer vacations.
Atlantic City shines
One Jersey Shore destination that wasn’t at the mercy of the forecast this summer was Atlantic City and its nine casinos.
Summer 2018 was somewhat unique for Atlantic City. In June The Hard Rock and Ocean Resort casinos opened, which helped generate more positive news coverage for the city.
While still waiting for more numbers from July and August to be fully analyzed, Joe Kelly, the president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, said it looks like Atlantic City had a great summer.
“The feel of the town, I believe, was strong,” he said. In part, that might be because casinos and dining are less weather dependent than some other activities.
Also bolstering AC was the start of legalized sports gambling to New Jersey’s casinos and horse tracks and the summer construction of Stockton University’s new A.C. campus and the adjacent new headquarters for South Jersey Industries.
It’s no secret that Jersey Shore towns are all looking for ways to keep visitors coming back. In particular, towns are working hard to make the months of September and October a primetime for weekend getaways.
Most longtime shore watchers say Wildwood started the trend with its firefighter’s weekend each September. It now packs each weekend with special events through October. But a few towns are marketing themselves as wintertime destinations. Cape May has managed to become a major destination for the Christmas season and Ocean City draws thousands to its First Night events each New Year’s eve.
“After summer, the fall season is the second favorite time of year for vacationers visiting our resort island,” said John Siciliano, the executive director of the Greater Wildwood Tourism Development Authority.
But this year’s rain hasn’t really let up. The annual September kick-off event, the Roar to the Shore motorcycle rally the weekend after Labor Day, saw heavy rain and flooded streets presenting a tough ride home for many motorcyclists.
Now with Hurricane Florence wreaking havoc in the Carolinas the Jersey Shore could end up with more rain.
WHYY reporter Tom MacDonald contributed to this report.