The Cambrian

How much has tourism slid since the Highway 1 slides?

It’s tough to know how (and how much) North Coast tourist-related businesses will be affected this summer, fall and beyond by the closure of Highway 1 in several spots between Ragged Point and Big Sur.

But there are some hints about what’s ahead in the wake of two big landslides, and several smaller ones, along that section of highway:

▪  State Park officials said June attendance at Hearst Castle was down by 7 percent, a drop that continued during the Fourth of July holiday period.

According to John Fixler, ticket-office supervisor, attendance during the first week of July was 23,837, down 7.75 percent from the 2016 attendance of 25,842. Attendance over the same period in 2015 was 25,733.

It’s been a challenging year for the Castle and the area, with: the Soberanes and Chimney fires closing Highway 1 and even the monument itself for a time last summer; some fiercely stormy weather last winter (the monument was closed for nearly four days over the Presidents’ Day holiday weekend); and now the Highway 1 closure and, full circle, more Central Coast wildfires.

There have been some wild fluctuations in attendance in 2017, according to Dan Falat, superintendent of the State Parks district that includes the Castle. Attendance in “April was up 19 percent,” over the same time period in 2016, “and in May it was down 10 percent. Some of that depends on where spring break is and where Easter falls. Put them together, and we were actually about 9 percent above last year” during those months.

Adding to prospective Castle headaches this summer is the Aug. 1 launch of a new online ticketing service.

▪  The Cambria Tourism Board expects to receive 8 percent less income in 2017-18, as reflected in the $377,300 estimate in the budget approved by the board June 13, nearly $35,000 less than the projected 2017 budget collections of $412,282.

The Tourism Board gets its income from an additional 2 percent tax paid by guests in local lodgings. The funds are designed to help promote events and other things that help increase overnight stays there — 1 percent goes to the local board, and the rest supports tourism countywide in unincorporated areas. There’s a similar group in San Simeon and in various other tourist-oriented, unincorporated areas of the county.

▪  Fewer visitors have been to the elephant seal rookery between San Simeon and Piedras Blancas, according to representatives of Friends of the Elephant Seal. Lynette Harrison, Friends co-president, said via email July 2 that, from January through May this year, docents spoke to 61,533 visitors at the site, compared to 83,169 in the same time frame in 2016 and 68,246 in 2015.

However, “we are still seeing visitors from all over the world,” Harrison said, Since June 15, docents report talking to people “from 19 different countries,” she said, with the most frequently represented countries being Germany, China, England, Sweden and Italy. Many of those visitors aren’t aware of the Highway 1 closure, so docents “have to redirect them to Highway 101 so they can continue traveling north.”

▪  People with a good view of Highway 1 traffic, and some restaurateurs who regularly accommodate bus-tour visitors, say there haven’t been as many buses making the Highway 1 trek this summer.

Business reports

Entrepreneurs often shy away from sharing their bottom-line stats, but some are acknowledging off the record that their North Coast sales are down from 10 to 50 percent when compared with last year. The lucky ones say sales are holding steady … not up, not down, just flat.

Mary Ann Carson of the Cambria Chamber of Commerce, said representatives of lodgings and shops she’s contacted there say “they’re not suffering as much as they were afraid they would be,” with lodgings down maybe 15 to 18 percent, and many shop incomes down less than that. She said July 10 that “the restaurants seem to be doing really well.”

Downtown Cambria has been generally busy, but crowd levels have been up and down, depending on the day, with some surprising results. On an occasional Tuesday, town will be packed with tourists, but on the following Saturday, traffic could be down from the seasonal norm.

Having July 4 fall on a Tuesday didn’t help, either.

Marketing efforts

Carson said aggressive advertising and social-media marketing campaigns are helping attract people to the area, which she said “has actually become more of a destination itself.” Visitors can come to the area, get cooled off, go to Hearst Castle, see the elephant seals and go to “the base of Big Sur, and still have a good time here.”

Brooke Burnham, marketing vice president for Visit SLO CAL, said July 10 that the nonprofit organization — which markets the county as a prime destination for visitors — has just completed a $1 million campaign from January to June. “We’ve been working very hard to rebrand the county as SLO CAL,” she said, “trying to bring SLO CAL into the forefront for tourism consideration. We’re hoping that will help to offset the impacts” of the Highway 1 closure and other disruptions.

She said, “We continue to work with partners at all levels to keep this issue top of mind, and to seek out new ways to assist our North Coast communities … We’ve also been working closely on the state level to inform tourists nationally and internationally that all of SLO CAL’s Highway 1 destinations are open. We’ve been pulling every lever and working every angle we can” to tout the “incredible experience” of visiting this county and the North Coast.

Visit SLO CAL is working on “a toolkit to help communities, businesses and elected officials share stories and information about the affected areas,” Burnham said. “We are also translating the detour maps we developed last spring into multiple languages. Finally, we are collaborating with local SLO CAL tourism entities on developing a regional co-operative marketing campaign to encourage visitation to the area.”

Visit SLO CAL receives weekly/monthly compilations of self-reported data from those lodgers who choose to submit stats, which isn’t all of them, she said. She said, the small data-set “snapshots,” which are rarely released to the public, “are used by us to identify broader trends, rather than as a comprehensive view of the health of the specific communities’ lodging sectors.”

Burnham did note a trend that North Coast entrepreneurs have seen already: According to the most recent snapshots, “the Highway 1 closure appears to be having an effect on the North Coast’s occupancy at this time.” However, “the silver lining, if you will, is that average daily rate (ADR) is holding steady over last year for the North Coast set. Also, for Cambria, the reported numbers in occupancy and ADR both are exceeding the county average.”

Burnham added that “Visit SLO CAL has also been beating the drum to our local residents that, as friends and neighbors, we can also have a positive impact. We encourage residents within the county to visit the North Coast, patronize the local businesses there and to refer customers, friends and family to do the same.

“Our portion of Highway 1 is completely open,” she said, “welcoming travelers to great coastal adventures, incredible views and truly local dining and shopping.”

Location matters

Businesses closer to the closure area seem to have been hardest hit, as is often the case when Highway 1 is blocked.

Several San Simeon enterprises report their sales are down from 40 to 50 percent, compared with the same time frame last year.

Some employees are working shorter shifts and fewer hours. Some employers and staffers are making mutual concessions to get through the tough times.

A few businesses may not survive the downturn. That’s what happened during the 1983-84 landslide south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. According to a Caltrans history of Highway 1 landslides along that stretch of roadway, the slide that kept the highway closed “was at the time the largest slide to affect a state highway; it took over a year to completely clear that slide and reopen the road between Big Sur and San Simeon.” That history is available at http://bit.ly/2t1H2At.

Optimism helps

With this landslide closure, some business owners undoubtedly will wring their hands and moan about how bad it might get, continuing to operate as usual and hoping they’ll be able to keep the doors open.

Others, however, are making operational changes, doing aggressive marketing and adopting a more upbeat attitude that they share with their customers.

Take Ragged Point at the San Luis Obispo-Monterey County line, for instance, which is close to the disastrous Mud Creek Slide area. Because the earth there is still moving, Mud Creek likely will be the lengthiest closure along the Big Sur stretch of Highway 1. Officials have said the closure could last more than a year there.

Jim Ramey, a member of the family that for decades has owned Ragged Point’s oceanfront, 8.8-acre destination resort, said that “we’re inclined, as a family, to be able to withstand things like this. … We’re happy to see Caltrans open the highway to Salmon Creek. I’d like to see more of it open, although I know they’re going as fast as they can.”

When asked if he wishes there was more he and others could do to hurry the process along, Ramey chuckled and told the reporter, “I don’t own a bulldozer, unfortunately, and my hands are too small to make much of a dent.”

His staff also has taken an optimistic, even light-hearted approach to the situation.

At Ragged Point Restaurant, pastry chef Rebecca Fields is offering a dessert that’s customized to the situation, a “Landslide Cake” that almost always sells out early in the day, according to staffer Aaron Mevety.

The confection is billed as “a chocolate disaster” inspired by the Mud Creek slide.

Fields described the cake July 6 as being between 6 and 8 inches tall. The bottom layer is chocolate cake, the middle layer is chocolate cheesecake with an Oreo crust and the top layer is a hollow chocolate-cake layer filled with crushed malt balls, chocolate chips, cake bits, and cookie crumbs (subbing for the rocks in the landslide). Chocolate buttercream covers the cake, which is topped with “landslide crumble” and inedible traffic signs.

As the menu admonishes, “Watch out for falling rocks.”

Next steps

Community leaders were to meet Wednesday afternoon, July 12 in San Simeon to discuss issues related to the highway closure and help business owners fill out “Estimated Disaster Economic Injury” worksheets. These are designed to tell the county Office of Emergency Services what the financial impacts have been and are estimated to be in the near future.

Visit SLO CAL

Visit SLO CAL is a nonprofit countywide destination marketing organization. Its goal is to promote San Luis Obispo County through various means to “brand the region as a choice destination for regional, national and international travelers alike.

“Visit SLO CAL works in partnership with tourism industry-related businesses including lodging properties, restaurants, wineries, activities, golf courses and retail stores to create a unified marketing approach that promotes the culinary, coastal and cultural assets of the county.”

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