Thursday, October 11, 2001
So few travelers emerged from the Monterey Airport it felt like some remote rural strip. The skycap sat in the sun behind his podium, his cap at a tilt and the radio on. He didn''t look tired, just bored.
A string of idling cabs lined up waiting for fares along the sidewalk near the front door. But in the middle of the second week after the terrorist attacks, it was so slow that one cabbie, a friendly guy named Kannaiha Naidu, got out of his car and sat on the curb, whirling a rag to polish the hubcaps of his gleaming Crown Victoria.
Naidu is an Indian from Fiji. He lives in Monterey. He''s got an accent, and in a less tolerant community in these newly frantic days, he might be the target of some angry ignoramus. But on this day he was just a cab driver with nothing to do.
"We''re very slow. It''s about 60 percent off," he estimated. Usually Naidu has 12 or 13 fares a day. In the weeks following Sept. 11, he had learned to count on four or five fares a day, or less.
Fall is the best time of year for the tourist business in Monterey. The weather is splendid and those in the hospitality industry count on these Indian summer months to pile up a cash reserve for winter. Already less than flush--the Bay Area dot-com bust made for a slower-than-usual summer season--service workers this year have not been able to accumulate any kind of nest egg.
Naidu has friends who are waiters in the restaurants and workers in the hotels. Their hours were being cut back and they were worried.
"We just stay and wait and see what''s happening," he said, sitting behind the wheel of his taxi. He smiled but did not seem hopeful. "Tension is high right now. People are scared."
Inside the airport, it still looked like an airport, except there were more cops and fewer people hauling luggage. It was so uncrowded you could skateboard through the lobby and not hit anyone.
At the car rental counters, the agents looked around or talked on the phone. Some just chatted with one another.
Judy Maselli at National Car Rental said she wasn''t used to such a desolate lobby.
"This place is usually buzzing," she said.
Maselli got stuck in Kansas City after the bombings and had to drive back on the Interstate. People were so desperate to get home, she says, she passed scattered flotillas of limousines on the highway. Limos in mass exodus. "I couldn''t believe it," she said.
Of course that meant things got weird in Monterey, too. With flights canceled, she lost cars in every direction. She regularly rents 50 cars a day. She was down to 22 if she was lucky.
Tapping her keyboard, she said, "It''s amazing," looking at an empty computer screen. "Nothing. There''s nothing."
The phone rang--a client in New York. Hints of a gradual rebound were coming true.
"You''re going to be brave enough to get on an airplane, right?" she said to the caller. It was someone at Golf Magazine. They''re planning to send a crew out in mid-October for a story about the local links. Hanging up, she said, "That''s a good sign."
Clearly, what was America before Sept. 11 had been turned upside down, Monterey with it. Fear and danger and death now exist in places we used to ignore. The sickening ripple effect of the terror attacks were felt across the nation. The attacks delivered a crushing blow that were felt by laid-off workers and by business owners whose cash registers ring a whole lot less these days.
The Associated Press reports that jobless claims had already soared by 71,000, to their highest point in nine years. Particularly hard hit was the hospitality and tourism industry. That put a hurt--short but painful--on the local economy.
According to the county office of economic development, tourism represented $1.9 billion in direct economic activity to Monterey County in 2000, making it once again the second biggest industry in the county (agriculture accounted for $2.9 billion). A report prepared for the Convention and Visitors Bureau says that the "total economic impact" of travel and tourism spending adds up to nearly $3.25 billion. The same report forecasts at least a 5 percent decline this year; the report was issued well before the recent blow.
Sitting at her desk at the job placement firm Kelly Services in downtown Monterey, Althea Randell says the effect was immediate.
"We''re getting a lot of people coming in looking for work. Desperate. ''I''ll do anything.'' That''s the common response," she says. "We had more job orders than candidates and now it''s the opposite. Our database of employees is larger than the number of assignments."
One of her friends just started at a local resort only to be sent home.
"It''s kind of sad. I have stacks of résumés here. Stacks. You graduate and you have wings, you know, ''Tah-Dah!'' But I have people with Masters degrees and PhDs who don''t have jobs."
We are in a hunkered-down economy--the New York Times called it the "Fear Economy"--and when people hunker down, they stay home. When people stay home, they don''t come to places like the Monterey Peninsula, and people like Kannaiha Naidu have the time to polish their hubcaps.
It means that people like Burke Pease have to do a bit of polishing too. Pease is the CEO of the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau. He has a second-story office above Alvarado in Monterey. It''s deceptively serene.
On his desk he has a picture frame that''s hooked into a telephone line. Every few seconds a different photo of his new grandchild appears. He doesn''t have much on the walls of this office. A quote from a former Coca-Cola executive named Sergio Zyman is taped above his desk: "Our brand is the promise we keep, not the promise we make."
Pease''s job is to lure people away from the terror broadcasts on their televisions, out of the safety of their homes, and back to places like Monterey where businesses depend on outsiders.
Even before Sept. 11, the area had already been hurt by what Pease called "retrenching" in Silicon Valley. As of July, the numbers for the year were down 7.7 percent. June was down 13 percent and July was down 10. It''s anticipated that September could be down 50 percent.
Still, that has to be taken in context. This area has done very well in recent years because of the high-tech boom. For a short while, 1999 was the best year in history, with 11 percent growth. That didn''t last long. It got better.
"2000 was the best year in the history of tourism in Monterey," Pease says, smiling. But 2001 had already been what he calls a "soft year." Now it''s a lot worse. "September 11 amplified the decline in business substantially, so it had a cumulative effect."
Pease doesn''t have much fresh local data, but he does have some. He pulls out charts to explain what''s happening. He doesn''t want to talk in anecdotes, so the charts give him real numbers.
The graph follows daily hotel occupancy in America for September this year and last. Monterey follows the national trend, so the chart can be taken to represent business here. Until Sept. 11 the lines nearly overlap. The trend is identical. Then on the day of the bombings, the 2001 line drops while 2000 climbs.
"The gap opens up," he explains. "We were tracking a little bit below. Now we''re tracking a lot below."
Using his fingers to represent the two trend lines, he taps them together, indicating a closing of the gap he anticipates will bring people back. "They [potential visitors] are gonna stop the cocooning," he says, adding a note of caution: "That assumes no new event."
The bureau has a marketing campaign that began on October 1. It''s focused on residents of the Bay Area, and ads will appear exclusively in the major newspapers there, on area radio and in regional magazines. The idea is these tourists don''t have to fly. They are, as Pease says, "the lowest-hanging fruit."
The thrust of the campaign--planned way before Sept. 11--is to get Monterey into the "top of mind" of the public, to get this area onto the same escape-route maps as Tahoe and Napa Valley.
Pease pulls out another chart showing the scale of tourism in the local economy. It''s climbed from $1.2 billion in 1995 to $1.9 billion in 2000. It won''t get close to $1.9 billion this year.
"We''re off that number, I have no doubt in my mind. I doubt if we''re back to $1.6 billion," he says, referring to the total earned in 1998. "But we had a healthy and successful industry at $1.6 billion. We''re not in crisis mode."
O n Friday, the region''s tourism chiefs had a big powwow. They had to figure out what to do now that the entire ballgame has changed. The consensus was not to swath the Peninsula in red, white and blue. "Our decision was not to get into that game," Pease says. No, the plan is to tweak existing marketing campaigns.
"We don''t want to use the ''Be Patriotic and Spend Money with Us'' approach," he says. "If there''s a message to send, we''re already a destination known for personal renewal. They already know us for that. The consumer will make the connection that this is a good place for personal renewal."
A few hotel managers are certainly looking for a renewal. A renewal of the days when people came to the Peninsula undeterred by faceless enemies. Asked if Sept. 11 has had any effect on his hotel, Mike Koffler of the Hyatt Hotel says, "I''d like to say none at all, but that''s not true."
In the week after the attacks, he says, 100 percent of the bookings canceled. That first week of cancellations meant eight conventions vaporized. The hotel has 575 rooms, of which 70 percent are usually booked by groups. At this time of year the Hyatt normally has 90 percent occupancy. Two weeks ago, the Hyatt was only half full.
Like many others, Koffler notes that September and October are usually the best months for tourism on the Peninsula. "Financially for Monterey, this couldn''t have happened at a worse time."
Even the Aquarium has been hammered. Spokesman Ken Peterson says, "Our attendance has been down about 25 to 30 percent since the 11th."
Usually at this time of year, about 5,000 to 6,000 people check out the Aquarium on weekend days. About 3,000 daily visitors can be counted on during the week. During the weeks following the attack, that number was down by at least a quarter.
Mark Verbonich, vice president for community relations at Pebble Beach Company, was just as dour.
"We''ve been affected quite significantly since Sept. 11, in terms of our occupancy and all the other outlets we have out here," he said.
From Labor Day to November, the Pebble Beach Co. has typically had 90 percent occupancy. After the attacks, that number dropped to 40 percent. Numbers dropped immediately both for group reservations and individual visitors. At press time it has already bounced more than halfway back up.
Verbonich says it''s totally unclear how long the damage will linger. The initial drop came with the flight restrictions, and the "traveling public" hasn''t quite gotten its taste for airliners back.
Pebble Beach Co. has 455 rooms in three hotels--the Lodge, the Inn at Spanish Bay and Casa Palmero. With 2,000 employees it is one of the largest private employers on the Peninsula.
Verbonich would not say how much money the company has lost, but, he says, "It''s been substantial."
There have been no staff layoffs, he says. "We have been taking a look at our schedule and making adjustments virtually day to day. Employees have been working shorter weeks, but we haven''t made any staffing changes."
Jeanne Woolridge can''t lay herself off, but two weeks ago she thought she might as well. She lost $2,000 in wages between Sept. 11 and Sept. 25.
Woolridge runs her own business picking up convention groups at the airport. When the husbands are off playing golf or ensconced in conferences, she gives the wives tours of the Peninsula. Groups canceled en masse.
The people she talked to during those weeks just wanted to stay with their families. At the time, she was worried. "In this industry you put a bit away for a rainy day because there are a lot of rainy days. This is a very rainy day."
A week later, she said a few companies had already rescheduled, and she picked up a little bit of the work she''d lost. "Which is wonderful," she said.
The only other person in Tommy Robinson''s ice cream shop, Monterey Ice Cream, is Robinson''s friend J.R. Fanene. All the other seats are empty. Fanene comes to Robinson''s shop on Alvarado every day from his home in Marina. Fanene, who wears dangly earrings and dark sunglasses, hangs out with Robinson at the front window, reading the paper. Today he''s eating a burrito.
"Usually there''s lots of people at all times of day," says Fanene. But his friend Robinson, a 17-year Army veteran, isn''t scooping much ice cream these days. After the attacks, it seemed people lost their sweet tooth.
"It''s been real slow. That''s a fact," says Robinson. "Usually we have a whole lot of tourists coming in here, but since Sept. 11, it has not been like that."
Down the street two tourists from England pore over a map in the plaza in front of the DoubleTree Hotel.
Peter and Barbara Dalby came over from York, England on Sept. 21. They were in the first group since the attack to arrive. Peter shrugs off the trouble. Barbara is a bit worried.
With the terrible troubles in Northern Ireland, the Dalbys and their fellow Britons have been used to terror and bombings since 1969. Barbara says Sept. 11 means we''re all in the same boat now.
"It just made you vulnerable like everybody else. It''s happening in the rest of the world. As long as there was a place that was secure--which was the States--you feel safe. But you''re not safe anywhere, anymore."
The Dalbys go back to their maps and decide where next to visit in Monterey. n
So-called ''bed tax'' tapers in 2001 after five years of steady growth.
The economic benefits of tourism for a city can be measured very clearly with the annual amount collected through the Transient Occupancy Tax, or TOT. This is a 10 percent charge that''s added on top of hotel room rates. In addition to helping the cities pay for schools, fire protection and cops, it''s a definitive gauge of visitor traffic that''s used by government officials and tourism leaders.
Current TOT figures for September will not be available until November, so the fiscal damage of the terror attacks on local city budgets will not be known for some time. Based on what hotel managers told the Weekly, it won''t be pretty.
Until this year, Monterey''s collections have grown each year from 1996 to 2000: $10.7 million, $11.8 million, $12.6 million, $12.9 million and $14.3 million respectively.
In Salinas, 1996 produced $858,956; from 1997 to 2000 the TOT grew slightly every year from $1 million to $1.2 million.
In Carmel in the same period, TOTs grew from $3.2 million in 1996 to $3.9 million in 2000.
For 1996 Seaside collected $905,000. Between 1997 and 2000 its collections were $1.4 million, $1.5 million, $1.7 million and $1.9 million.
County TOT revenue totals, including King City, Soledad and Gonzales, grew by $11 million over the past five years, topping at $39 million in 2000.
A three billion dollar brand--new marketing campaign targets tourists from the Bay Area.
Scheduled far in advance of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau launched on Oct. 1 a brand new marketing campaign aimed at bringing more visitors to the area. The timing is coincidental but convenient.
At a time when potentially less confident and less solvent Americans are less than gung-ho to climb in an airliner, the campaign is aimed at regional travelers who would arrive by car, not plane. It''s aimed at the Bay Area market and will be run in print ads in regional editions of magazines, in Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose newspapers, and in ads on area radio stations.
Rather than an ad campaign aimed at getting people to take advantage of a travel discount, for example, the Monterey marketing campaign is what''s known as a "branding campaign." According to convention bureau chief Burke Pease, the goal is to impress upon consumers the subtle charms and easygoing mood of the Monterey area.
Prepared by the same San Francisco ad agency that devised the nationally known "Got Milk?" ad onslaught, the local campaign features the logo: "Monterey: You just have to experience it for yourself."
For example, the magazine print ads catch the eye not with the kind of dramatic nature photography that has made this place famous, but the absence of it.
One version features an empty wooden picture frame with text below touting the "23 beaches, 3 missions, 25 golf courses, 33 wildlife habitats..." and so on that can be found here. Accompanying the empty picture frame are the words, "As you can imagine, featuring just one would be unfair." --Andrew Scutro