Summer tourism season down after slow start in June because of snow make-up days file photo

Usually when you talk about weather affecting the summer tourism season, it’s the hurricanes or strings of rainy days.

But this year, it’s the lingering effects of the winter ice and snow on school schedules that sent a chill over the start of the season, leaving beach businesses banking on a strong July and August to make up for those early June losses.

Schools in key markets for the Grand Strand kept students in class longer this year to make up for snow days caused by the especially harsh winter; some in New York didn’t finish up until June 26. That made for a quiet start to the do-or-die summer tourism season for Grand Strand businesses.

“Everyone kind of lost half of June,” said Jim Eggen, corporate general manager for Myrtle Beach Seaside Resorts, a group of six hotels including Avista Resort that combined have roughly 850 guest rooms.

With half the summer in the books, lodging occupancy along the Grand Strand so far is down compared to the same time last year. The six-week average for hotel, condotel and campsite occupancy from May 25 through July 5 was about 80 percent, down 2.5 occupancy points or 3.1 percent compared to the same six weeks last year, according to Coastal Carolina University’s Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism.

The average daily rate also was down, leaving revenue per available room — a key gauge for businesses known as RevPar — down 4.2 percent compared to the same period last year.

Vacation rental properties took an even bigger hit, with the six-week average occupancy at 76 percent, down 4.7 occupancy points or 5.8 percent. Rates fell by 14.7 percent, leaving revenue per available bedroom down 19.6 percent.

Lodging properties and attractions say business has picked up since June, with July and August looking solid — except for the ill-timed visit by Hurricane Arthur during the July Fourth week.

The storm - which hit the Grand Strand with rain and some wind July 3 but left no major damage — caused more than a few visitors to change their July Fourth plans, with a wave of cancellations at area resorts. Some were able to fill those rooms, others still came up short on what is traditionally one of the busiest summer weeks.

Lodging occupancy at hotels, condotels and campsites that weekend was about 90 percent, down 2.9 occupancy points or 3.1 percent compared to the same weekend last year, according to CCU. Projections headed into the holiday weekend had predicted the beach would be busier, with lodging occupancy at hotels that weekend expected to hit 94 percent or higher, which would have been up between 1 and 3 occupancy points over the same weekend last year.

“We definitely would have had a better Fourth of July if that hadn’t happened,” Eggen said of Hurricane Arthur. “It definitely got us a little bit. It definitely dropped us where we had hoped to be sold out.”

The storm sent the visitors who still came to the Grand Strand seeking indoor activities — which gave Ripley’s Aquarium at Broadway at the Beach its busiest day of the year with more than twice as many guests through the doors, officials said.

“People definitely ventured out,” said Jessica Mula, the attraction’s spokeswoman.

Business at the aquarium, which plans to expand and add a new penguin exhibit for 2015, has picked up since the slow June start, general manager Craig Atkins said.

“Things started slightly slow for us, but now that summer is in full swing, it’s been great,” he said. “It’s going to be a good summer for us for sure.”

Business also has bounced back from the slow start to summer at Vacation Myrtle Beach Resorts, spokesman Matt Klugman said, adding that he expects this summer will be better than summer 2013.

“There were some extended school dates in early June that affected the beach in general, but we’ve recovered well for the most part,” he said. “July has been strong for us, and while we’re still booking heavily for August, we’re optimistic about the month. Friday through Sunday of Labor Day weekend falls completely into August this year, so I’m sure the beach will be as full as ever over that weekend.”

Bookings for August also are strong at Myrtle Beach Seaside Resorts, which Eggen hopes will make up for some of the early summer losses and leave the hotels at least even with last summer if not up a bit.

“The end of July and August will be better,” Eggen said. “I think [the summer] will be slightly ahead of last year — if [the recent trend] continues.”