Merchants report strong holiday sales despite gas prices

By Matthew J. Perry
Will $4 a gallon gas wreak havoc on tourism in the Catskills this summer?
For many, it’s a premature question. Predicting the strength of a summer tourism season in a region with erratic weather patterns and no beaches is always a dicey proposition. There are good and bad years, and the best any merchant can do is take care of customers and coax them to return.
A stoic approach to the busy season works for many. But with $4 a gallon gasoline looking uncomfortably like the houseguest who came to stay, and budgets everywhere being affected, many residents and merchants are seeking indicators and anecdotal evidence to help control the uneasy feelings created by a slumping economy and rising prices.
The Memorial Day weekend, traditionally viewed as the kick-off date for summer, brought steady business for many of the region’s businesses. But the last weekend in May is often followed by slower weeks in June, when many would-be tourists and second home owners are attending graduations and wrapping up business before the summer begins in earnest.
“It’s really too early to tell how the summer will go,” said Dorothy Maffei, owner of Home Goods of Margaretville, who reported good, but not spectacular, business over the holiday weekend.
Steve Yaekel, owner of Margaretville Liquor Store, was pleased by business that outstripped his returns on the same weekend a year ago. “It was really good,” he said. “And driving home I saw lots of cars in front of second homes. There were lots of new and old faces, plenty of tourists.”
Some business owners were even willing to predict that higher prices at the pump will create good news for the region. Gary Simmons’ Mountain Brook Inn, in Bovina, has seen no fall-off from last year. “I was bracing for a hit but things haven’t changed much,” he said. “I think people are going to be staying closer to their own back yard but guess what, we’re the back yard for Manhattan and Long Island.”
Carol Molnar, who has run Margaretville Mountain Inn for 18 years, takes a long view of business cycles and was resistant to the notion that unprecedented gas prices would keep away tourists. “A few years ago gas hit $2 a gallons and we all made our predictions [about declining business] and we were all wrong,” she said. A much greater strain on merchants, she argued, was the increase in operational costs.
Don Hogan’s general store in Andes, which has watched food costs increase weekly through the spring, would agree. As a business that caters to local residents as much as those passing through, he has seen signs of strain, if not a serious drop in business as yet.
“My credit card sales are way up,” he said. “People are paying with loose change and rolls of coins instead of bills.”
Sally O’Neill, owner of The Andes Hotel, noted that sales at her restaurant were down 10 percent from last Memorial Day, but that the drop could be due to a number of factors. “It was nice weather, and sometimes people want to grill, not sit at a restaurant.” While her lodging rates have remained steady, she noted that in preparation for a downturn the hotel will be providing more entertainment and increase local marketing.
Merchants who cater directly to more affluent in general believed that the cost of fuel would not deter their clientele from visiting. Assuming 300 round-trip miles between Manhattan and a Catskill destination, $4 gas means an increase of only $20 to $30 over 2007 prices.
Patty Cullen, who runs A House Around The Bend, a vacation rental service, noted that with the advent of online discount merchants such as Priceline.com, many would-be tourists are waiting until the last minute to book in the area, making speculation all the more dicey. But she expressed confidence that the region has more than enough to offer tourists—at relatively bargain prices—to minimize the impact of rising prices. She also believes that the concept of a ‘Stay-cation’—staying put in a second home or a long rental instead of traveling—could be a boon to the area.
“It’s not the gas prices,” she said. “What we have to do is create a desirable destination for people. We have to be aware of what people are asking for when they visit. People who are proactive and increase their services and help visitors to enjoy the area can still do well.”