CAPE MAY - At the Jersey Shore, it's always about the weather - and the timing.
So as business owners and officials up and down the coast rush this week to add the finishing touches before their big season opener for Memorial Day weekend, some worry that last winter's extended snow days in the region - and the resulting delay in the closing of schools for the summer - will mean a briefer tourism season at the Shore.
Even though some Pennsylvania and New Jersey districts cut the length of spring break and did away with in-service days since a record amount of snow was dumped on the region in February, summer break and even graduations are coming more than a week or two later than usual for some schools.
And that same nasty weather pattern that extended as far back as November has beach towns from Monmouth County down to Cape May County scurrying to finish emergency beach repairs after a series of storms denuded some strands.
"They are definitely going to be getting down here later because of the schools," said Diane Wieland, director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism. "We're expecting a good Memorial Day, but then it'll drop off and our June shoulder season is going to be weaker. In a bad economy, that's not good news."
Especially in a place where families traveling with children are the bread and butter. In 2009, as many as 65 percent of Cape May County's visitors arrived with a family that included parents and children, with about 30 percent of those traveling with extended family, according to a study conducted by the county tourism department.
Early indications were that bookings for motels, hotels, and rental homes were running about even with last year or were slightly higher for the prime vacation weeks in July and August.
"This is a stressful time, and when people are stressed, they tend to keep their loved ones close by," Wieland observed. "The good news for us is that family travel is going to be very in this summer once people are finally able to get to their vacations."
But it's been a stressful time, too, for New Jersey's $38 billion-a-year tourism industry, the second-largest revenue generator for the state after tax collection. And prime revenue-creating Shore counties like Cape May - second in the state for generating tourism expenditures - have taken some hits recently.
The Christie administration has refused to allocate state travel and tourism funding this year to pay for an annual multimillion-dollar national TV advertising campaign that some in the industry credit with boosting tourism dollars by competing with other states for visitors. Individual beach towns, like Wildwood and Ocean City, have had to spend their own funds on more regional campaigns to try to bring in tourists.
Tourism expenditures in Cape May County in 2008 were down 3.7 percent. When calculations are made available, officials expect the trend to be similar for 2009, and predictions are that the numbers will remain flat for 2010.
Those numbers make people wince in a place that has the highest concentration of hotels and motels in New Jersey paying the state occupancy tax and where 50.2 percent of all second homes in the Garden State are located. As many as 47 percent of all the dwellings in Cape May County are considered "second" homes, according to data gathered by the firm Global Insight.
"I think a lot of people are unaware just how important tourism is to the economy in Cape May County. It really is our only industry," said Joann Del Vescio, tourism director for the Borough of Stone Harbor. "Any factor, from a lack of state funding to beaches needing replenishing to bad weather, can adversely affect that industry."
While it has never been a prime vacation month at the Jersey Shore - the ocean is usually still a little chilly and most vacationers arrive some time after the Fourth of July - a June with particularly nice weather can provide a real boost for local business.
Memorial Day weekend has always been the traditional starting point, when many summer residents throw open their homes and begin to settle in for the season. Stores, restaurants, and hostelries use it as a trial run to tweak procedures, train new employees, stock shelves. Amusement piers and entertainment complexes often unveil new rides and attractions.
And beach towns usually make sure their strands are perfectly groomed. In places like Cape May, Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, North Wildwood, Stone Harbor, and Ocean City, they will be ready. But in the southern end of Sea Isle City and the northern end of Avalon, a bit more work will be undertaken between now and the end of June to complete a major sand-replenishment project. Neither town will completely close its beaches during the operation - which pumps sand from an offshore dredge 24 hours a day, seven days a week - only restricting entry to the precise locations where the pumping is occurring.
"Sometimes a good shoulder season, either in June or September, can really help make it or break it for a business," said Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce. "The weather is always key, but it's the weather we had three or four months ago that is going to have an impact on us this year."
Clark said that at this point, hotel and motel owners, restaurateurs, shopkeepers, and even municipalities that make money from things like beach-tag sales and parking-meter fees are keeping their collective fingers crossed about how the season will unfold.
Mark Kulkowitz, who owns the Carroll Villa Hotel and the Mad Batter Restaurant in Cape May, is one of them. He said he had noticed a particular lag in early bookings this year - a trend that he said had been happening in the travel industry since the 9/11 attacks.
"People don't want to make their travel plans too far ahead - there is too much uncertainty in the world," Kulkowitz said. "This year, with the schools getting out later, we're seeing that trend even more. People are taking a wait-and-see approach."