That white-tablecloth restaurant with the sweeping water views at the Friday Harbor House on San Juan Island? It closed in December and reopened last month as a casual bistro with a revamped menu. Out with the $25 flatiron steaks. In with the $9 pulled-pork sandwiches and sweet-potato fries.
Thinking of making last-minute plans for a few days at Lake Chelan? That might have been a problem last summer, but no longer.
“We always did full weeks, no ifs, ands or buts,” says Maribeth Clark, owner of Chelan Quality Vacation Properties.
“Now we see that people are still wanting to come, but they want to do shorter stays, and we’re willing to accommodate that.”
Travelers hitting the road around Washington this summer will notice lots of changes — everything from lower menu prices to more child- and pet-friendly B&Bs and more hotel rooms available last-minute. All this bodes well for the traveler looking for shorter, cheaper vacations, says Marsha Massey, executive director of Washington State Tourism. But for small-business owners it means finding new ways to stay alive as they grapple with a downturn in business and vacation travel.
“We’re all holding our breath,” says Nancy Gorshe, owner of the Depot Restaurant on the Long Beach Peninsula. Her business normally doubles in summer, but this year, she’s not taking anything for granted. She put on hold plans to add a party room, and rewrote the menu to include a half-page of small plates, salads and soups for $6 to $12.
After years of steady growth, statewide travel-related spending, adjusted for inflation, fell slightly last year to $15.7 billion, an amount that generated $1 billion in state and local taxes and nearly 4 percent of all jobs.
“Will the spending hit the same level this year? I’d be surprised,” Massey says. The number of international travelers arriving at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport fell 13 percent through May compared with last year, while hotels statewide filled just over half their rooms on average, according to Smith Travel Research.
One of the hardest-hit areas has been Walla Walla wine country, where a tourism boom spawned new hotels, B&Bs, restaurants and more than 120 wineries in the last decade.
Lodging-tax revenues dropped to 2006 levels in the first three months of this year, according to city treasurer Tim McCarty. That came after eight years of double-digit growth.
Five downtown restaurants have closed. Even the traditionally stellar month of May was slow, with average hotel occupancy dropping 16 percent compared with May 2008, due in part to canceled business conferences.
Alexa Palmer and Charles Maddrey, owners of the Fat Duck Inn, a luxury B&B and restaurant, are making up for a drop in bookings by ramping up the catering service they run in a three-car garage they gutted and turned into a commercial kitchen.
“I think people will come, but they’ll come spur-of-the-moment,” Palmer says. “Last year at this time, we had a big slush fund of advance deposits for summer and autumn. This year we’re not seeing that.”
Those who do call expect to find a deal, so she’s offering midweek discounts and a third free night with a two-night stay.
“Everyone wants a deal this year, even when it comes to a luxury inn. My first reaction was: ‘No, I can’t. I’m doing this for a living,’ but I’ve had to be a little more flexible. We have to, given the times.”
A trend toward shorter, closer-to-home getaways could lessen the effect on tourist areas such as the waterfront town of Langley on Whidbey Island, where New England meets the Northwest.
Shops in neat wooden buildings decorated with flower boxes sell rare books, fine wines, gourmet chocolates and handmade soaps, but shopkeepers such as Donna Leahy of the Chef’s Pantry say the changing economy means businesses like hers need to find ways to draw locals and tourists.
“I can’t sell $5 items all day and make a business out if it. I need someone to walk in and buy a $70 teakettle once in a while,” she said.
If Langley is Washington’s Cape Cod, then the Long Beach Peninsula is its Coney Island.
Putt-putt golf, go-carts, saltwater-taffy shops and 20 miles of ocean beaches lure thousands of tourists. Businesses count on repeat visitors such as Cheryl and Brad Mellotte of Yakima and their two children, who take a beach vacation every summer.
This year they spent about $800, taking advantage of a AAA discount at the Rodeway Inn and dining on frozen ribs, chicken and taco fixings brought from home.
Owners of vacation rentals are willing to make deals, with some offering half off a third night or rolling back rates to winter prices, says Shawn Hagstrom of Pacific Reality Property Management.
Long Beach businesses are used to storms, real and economic, says Nanci Main, co-owner of Jimella’s Market Cafe. She’s confident they will weather this one.
“It’s a special kind of person who lives here and owns a business. You’re more rugged in some ways. You learn to ride those waves.”