Climbing to new heights in North Country tourismBy JOHN KOZIOL
Sunday News Correspondent August 30. 2014 10:59PM
LINCOLN - As the summer of 2014 begins the slow fade into memory, members of the White Mountain Attractions Association say it has been one for the ages, marked by great weather and the return of visitor spending. "The summer has been exceptionally good," said Jayne O'Connor, the president of the Lincoln-based WMAA, in a recent email. "We had a few worries early on when the season started out wet through the early summer holidays. But the heart of the season - July and August - was spot-on perfect summer weather for the mountains. Mostly clear and just a little bit cool was common."
An official at the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration last week said the summer's meals and rooms tax data, which provide a good indicator of economic vitality, won't be available for several months, but O'Connor and attraction operators said attendance and income is up generally across the board.
In addition to large numbers of hikers who made weekend trips to the North Country this summer, O'Connor said "big attractions," among them the Cog Railway, Polar Caves, Story Land with its new Roar-a-Saurus roller coaster, and Lost River Gorge with its new Adventure Trail, were having a big year.
"Sometimes the weather can be a factor, but this year visitors seemed undaunted as they moved around with the weather," said O'Connor. "If we had a cool morning, or got a quick summer shower in the afternoon, they moved into the trains, shops and restaurants."
Visitor range expanding
Although the WMAA's main market has always been visitors from southern New Hampshire, Massachusetts and surrounding states, "We now see people from an average of 10 different countries every day all summer," O'Connor said.
"For New England, we were used to having international visitors mostly in the fall. But lately they've started coming in May, and all the way through the summer. That is a new and interesting trend for us."
O'Connor said another trend that the association has noticed is that "people are more comfortable with their spending this year. They are still careful, but certainly seem to be more confident in the economy, and that translates into higher sales in restaurants, souvenirs and experiences. That is good for our tourism economy here in the mountains, and certainly good for New Hampshire."
Rob Arey, director of operations for Polar Caves Park in Rumney, said thanks to the good weather and the resurgence in visitor spending, the Polar Caves is poised to have its best or second best season ever.
As of Monday, the Polar Caves, which averages some 50,000 visitors a year, had tallied 60,000, said Arey, and more could still be on the way. The park closes in late October.
"I think a lot of it was the weather this year and also the timing of the economy's turning around," Arey said, noting that one barometer of the latter has been the sale of several big-ticket items in the park's gift shop, foremost among them amethyst geodes from Brazil, which, depending on size, sell for several to many hundreds of dollars.
Those geodes weren't selling at all in 2013 or 2012, said Arey, who is chairman of the WMAA, but they are now, and Polar Caves Park is doing well this year, even though it opened a week late because of the lingering winter. Arey said his company uses social media extensively to promote the Polar Caves.
Howie Wemyss, general manager of the Mount Washington Auto Road, agreed that advertising helps.
One of the oldest man-made attractions in the U.S., the Auto Road ran advertisements for the first time in Canada "and we're seeing a lot of Canadians down here," said Wemyss.
Overall, "We're doing very well," Wemyss said. "If we can finish with a very good foliage season it will give us a very good year," adding that in an especially weather-dependent venture like the Auto Road, "it's pretty clear that the weather has been in our favor." Marketing can do a lot, Wemyss said, "but if you don't have good weather, then it's a tough sell."
Ahead of last summer
"It's early and I hate to talk about this stuff until the season's over, right now we're about 7 percent ahead of last summer, which was a good summer," said Wemyss.
On the other side of the Auto Road, Wayne Presby, president of the Mount Washington Cog Railway, said the Cog is bracing for its biggest year, with the expectation that about 90,000 riders will travel to the summit by the time the season ends in November.
"We had a record April, June, July and it looks like a record August as well," Presby said on Wednesday.
While concurring with his fellow WMAA colleagues that the weather and a recovering economy helped boost Cog ridership, Presby believes an even more significant factor is the railway's conversion of its entire fleet of engines from steam to biodiesel.
"This will be the third record season in a row, and that basically corresponds to when we had the whole fleet converted over," said Presby.
The Cog Railway is considering building a sixth biodiesel engine and has started working on another switch at the summit, Presby said. "We hope to start doing trips every 45 minutes instead of every hour."