Forecasts of economic gloom don't faze Megan Eberz and her partners, owners of three restaurants at the Jersey Shore.
The outlook for the Shore this summer is a bit sunnier than for other places, insisted Eberz, now busy making decisions about staffing and menus for the season.
Colleagues in the real estate business - the front line of the tourism industry - report that summer rentals and lodging reservations are ahead of 2008 by as much as 10 percent in some locations, she said.
"I'm pretty bullish, pretty optimistic," said Eberz, whose Shore properties are the Inlet in Somers Point and the Plantation and Daddy O on Long Beach Island.
"How the summer rentals are running is about the best barometer we have right now," she said.
"Early reservations are up," confirmed Ed Mebs, executive director of the Greater Wildwood Hotel and Motel Association. "There's an old saying here that goes, 'When the economy isn't doing well, the Wildwoods are doing great.' "
The Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority hopes to use the turbulent times to its advantage. A new ad campaign asks tourists: "Are you free this summer? The Wildwoods are!"
It's a reference to the fact that Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, and North Wildwood are among the rare New Jersey resorts with free beach access. Other towns charge as much as $10 for a one-day beach tag.
Eberz and fellow restaurateurs noted last year that vacationers seemed to have discovered the kitchens in their rentals. Supermarkets and fishmongers say they expect to sell even more fresh food for home preparation this summer.
Diners also were apt to have cocktails before heading out instead of buying a bottle of wine with their meal.
Eberz said she would hire as many people as usual for her Shore waitstaffs - about 100 in all - but would economize by putting less money into expensive managers. Thriftier choices, such as hamburgers and local fish, will find their way onto her menus alongside the usual steaks and seafood.
Owners of take-out restaurants say tourists' slimmer wallets are a boon to business.
"People aren't going out as often, but when they're on vacation, they still don't want to cook," said Frank Lupine, manager of Tony's Pizza in Beach Haven. Instead of going to a pricey joint, "they end up ordering a lot of pizza, a lot of takeout.
"We had to hire extra drivers last year just to keep up," Lupine said.
Even in resorts such as Wildwood, with accommodations mostly in hotels and motels without kitchens, bookings have picked up. That's because, according to Mebs, Wildwood is a good destination for folks on a budget.
With 8,000 hotel rooms and 3,000 condos, "we offer accommodations in all price ranges, from basic to luxury," said Ben Rose, executive director of the development authority, whose "Are you free?" ads will be on billboards, TV, and radio and in newspapers.
"But everybody likes to save money in this economy," he said.
In Ocean City - which has 15,000 summer rental units, the most on the Jersey coast - agents said they were relieved to see bookings even with or about 2 percent over where they were a year ago.
"Like everyone else, we were worried about what was going to happen," said Bill Godfrey, rental manager at the Marr Agency, one of the oldest real estate companies in the Cape May County resort.
Up and down the coast, rentals lagged until the traditional onslaught of prospective vacationers around Presidents Day weekend.
"Honestly, we were worried," echoed Paul Dzialo, president of Weichert Brigantine Realty. "We had been down 25 percent until the last few weeks."
With more competition for occupants caused by an increase in units - Brigantine now has 1,000 - rents have held steady, Dzialo said. Weekly rates vary from $800 to more than $5,000 there and elsewhere at the Shore.
"More second-home owners have been putting their units up for rent because they are maybe trying to raise cash," he said. "A few years ago, we saw units being taken out of the market because homeowners wanted the places to themselves."
In Sea Isle City, "we're running about 10 percent over [last year] for the office. But personally, I'm already up 17 percent," reported Bonnie Mitchell, rental manger at Sea Isle Realty.
"A vacation at the Shore has always been attractive to anyone from Philadelphia and always will be. And this year, because of the economy, people will be staying closer to home," she said. "I think it's going to be a really good summer."
The Shore makes lemonade out of hard times, said Barbara Steele, executive director of the Ocean County Office of Public Affairs and Tourism, which represents resorts from amusement-packed Seaside Heights and Point Pleasant to more genteel spots such as Loveladies and Barnegat Light.
"People are looking for places that are easy to get to and that they have some connection with," Steele said. And it doesn't hurt that "we're a tank of gas away from a third of the entire U.S. population."
With fuel below $2 a gallon, she said, "I think those day-trippers we lost last year when it was $4 will be back."
Despite such optimism, business owners say turning a profit will take savvy.
They will "be looking at ways to cut costs any way they can," said Drew Johnson, who hasn't picked a name yet for the cafe-bookstore he's opening with his wife in Sea Isle. "We know we have to do more with less."
Johnson had to close a store he had operated on the Ocean City boardwalk for five years. Sales of T-shirts and other souvenirs were down so much in 2008, he couldn't see reopening. But even he is upbeat.
"You really can't go by what you see on CNN or CNBC or any of the national reports," he said. "I've been around this area long enough to know this is a unique market. And I'm going to stick with it as long as I can."