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Jersey Shore is ready to roll out its 2017 summer edition

The big weekend that marks the unofficial start of summer at the Jersey Shore is upon us. While visitors return year after year to their favorite haunts, at the same time they expect the place to seem fresh and new. And savvy business owners will do what it takes - from tiny details like a fresh coat of paint on an Ocean City boardwalk sign to a multi-million dollar renovation on a venerable hotel and eatery like the Carroll Villa & Mad Batter in Cape May - to keep them coming back.

Dan Pitcherello works on the outdoor lights at Ocean City’s Beach It boutique on Wednesday. Businesses up and down the Ocean City boardwalk are finalizing preparations for the start of the summer season.
Dan Pitcherello works on the outdoor lights at Ocean City’s Beach It boutique on Wednesday. Businesses up and down the Ocean City boardwalk are finalizing preparations for the start of the summer season.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

CAPE MAY – For 41 years, Mark Kulkowitz and his family have faced the familiar drill just before Memorial Day weekend: to get their historic Jackson Street property, which includes the Carroll Villa inn and Mad Batter restaurant, ready for the busy summer tourist season.

It's a spring routine up and down New Jersey's 127-mile coastline for businesses and towns that are heavily dependent on make-it-or-break-it tourism, where millions of visitors and billions of dollars are at stake. Tourism has become a vital part of the Garden State's economy over the past 30 years, ranking as one of its top industries, employing nearly a half million people and raking in more than $40 billion annually – at least half of that from the state' four southern and central shore counties. And if the weather is good this summer and fuel prices remain moderate, state and county officials are projecting a record season in Atlantic, Cape May, Monmouth and Ocean counties based on early bookings and increased investment in the region.

To woo customers who return year after year – 70 percent of the Jersey Shore's tourism base – businesses need to reinvent themselves, offer something new. It can be something simple, such as a new ice cream flavor. Or a complete transformation.

While Kulkowitz and his staff's preparation plan for the circa 1882 Cape May hostelry is usually pretty routine year to year, just like those of many of his business neighbors – maybe a fresh coat of paint in the guest rooms, perhaps a few more items on the restaurant menu in the restaurant – it'll  be obvious when the ribbon is cut Wednesday on his property's multi-million dollar makeover, that this year is different.

The Mad Batter's familiar yellow-and-white-stripe, canvas front porch awnings – under which patrons have dined for years, but only from spring until fall – have been replaced with an enclosed structure. Approved by the local historical commission in this National Historic Landmark city the renovation includes a soaring roof line, huge Plexiglas windows framed in wood and ornate Victorian `gingerbread,' wainscoting, and a richly hued wooden floor, designed by the Ocean City architectural firm Bachich Associates.

While the design is in keeping with the Victorian Italianate style of the building, the state-of-the-art radiant heat from the floor and the newfangled windows – which create an open-air porch feel in good weather and can be sealed during the colder months – the new porch will remain in use nearly year around, Kulkowitz said.

"It's a fine line to walk because people love the shore and they get familiar with it…used to it. So when they come back after the winter they want to find the places they love, like this place," said Kulkowitz, 66, an affable second-generation host, whose father, Harry Kulkowitz, a decorated World War II veteran of the Normandy Invasion, bought the property in 1974, renovated it, and opened it with the restaurant and 34 guest rooms in 1976.

While the older Kulkowitz has retired, Mark Kulkowitz has continued to run the operation with the assistance of his wife, Pam Huber, 53, and two of their three children: daughter Marta, 33, and son, Kyle, 30, who are managers in the business. Their third child, daughter Tessa, 27, is studying business management in Paris.

Want more of the Shore? Pick up a copy of our 2017 Shore Guide, packed with the sights, sounds, and tastes of summer.

The guest rooms now number only 19 after previous renovations added private bathrooms and created two suites.  This latest renovation has freshened each room by adding designer wallpaper, high-thread count linens, upgraded bathroom, flat screen televisions, individual climate control, and other amenities in each uniquely – and comfortably – decorated room. Headboards, nightstands, and other pieces of dark-wood antique furniture have been lightened with a trendy coat of "chalk paint" for a designer look.

Investment like the Kulkowitz family's is important to keeping visitors coming back to the shore year after year, according to Diane F. Wieland, director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism.

And so has adjusting the sails when segments of the tourist population – like those from Canada whose numbers have dropped off substantially over the last several years because of a weakened Canadian dollar.

"While we are still seeing visitors from Canada, we have been seeing less of them in the last few years, so we've increased our marketing, going out and doing travel shows out in new places, like Ohio, to bring in visitors from other areas," Wieland said. "And so far, the response looks very good as bookings from the Midwest have increased."

Wieland said even longtime state tourism officials were surprised by the interest in visiting the New Jersey shore from people in the Buckeye state, who by the end of a weekend-long event over the winter had taken away a van-load of vacation-planning brochures and pamphlets.

And while everything at the shore will obviously be "all new" to those who've never been here before, repeat guests – who make up more than 70 percent of the total visitors – do want new attractions.

"People like to come back to what  they know, but they also want to see new things every year," Wieland said.  "Even if it's just a new flavor of ice cream at their favorite ice cream stand.  Big investment .. that really ultimately helps everyone's bottom line because it adds to the appeal overall."

That's why besides refurbishing its Great Nor'Easter roller coaster – with a new 2170-foot drop, improved track and a sleek new paint job – Morey's Piers in Wildwood also added a new behind-the-scenes tour where visitors can pay $35 each to see the inner workings of the amusement pier's operation.

Will B. Morey, a third generation operator of the piers, said the new tour was his idea after visitors over the years have expressed "a lot of curiosity" in how the piers run.

"We're always trying to come up with something new and fun for our guests and we think this will be a popular option," Morey said of the tour that will allow visitors to get under – as in beneath the pier – rides like the Great Nor'Easter to see the structure and mechanisms, as well as the prep work that is done in paint rooms, carpenter shop and parts warehouse.

For other businesses, changing it up year-to-year is a more a far more humble endeavor than a expensive property rehab or a spiffed up roller coaster.

"You  have a very small window – like in January for February – to figure out what you're going to do even if it's just bringing in new carpeting to freshen up the store," said Danielle Bruce, who is a second generation gift shop owner on the Ocean City boardwalk. "But you do it because people do notice and appreciate little things like that."

But whatever businesses do can to up their game can only add to their bottom line, according to Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University in Galloway Township.

"Reinvestment for shore businesses is key," Pandit said.  "And we continue to be encouraged by the reinvestment we have seen in the years since Superstorm Sandy. Reservations are up, casinos are doing better. We think it's going to  be a good summer."