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The countdown is on for Boston hotel operators, restaurants, even push-cart operators, as the summertime tourist season more or less officially gets underway with Memorial Day weekend. In this recession, it is undoubtedly an uncomfortable wait — a bit like sitting on a bed of nails — because of the money at stake.
Last year, according to the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, 18 million international and domestic travelers visited Greater Boston, taking in — among all that's offered here — Red Sox games, the waterfront with Old Ironsides, walking the Freedom Trail. They spent more than $7 billion here last year. But this year, hotel occupancy rates statewide are down and restaurant sales are off.
WEB EXTRA: Moscaritolo's 'great hidden gem' for Boston tourists
To gauge what might be ahead for Memorial Day weekend, for the Tall Ships event in Boston in July and the tourist season in general, we asked the president and CEO of the Visitors Bureau, Pat Moscaritolo, to meet us on the waterfront on Fan Pier. Fan Pier, because the tourism industry got a pre-season taste of what might be ahead, with the three weeks-long stopover there of the boats participating in the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race.
We are here on Fan Pier where the Volvo boats have been docked for some time now. Tell us how it's gone. How's the tourist turnout been?
BOSTON VISITORS BUREAU CEO PAT MOSCARITOLO: From Marathon Weekend on, business has been great. And it shows special events drive lots of visitors and lots of spending to Boston and Cambridge.
Has this event met its expectations?
MOSCARITOLO: Well I think it's probably exceeded them. Our concern was when corporate activity began to slow and there were cutbacks, we weren't quite certain whether the kind of spending that's associated with the race — that is, the corporate client spending — but in fact we've seen it, we've seen it here over this past weekend, we saw it the first weekend.
We've seen estimates that show travel from other parts of the country is down 5 to 6 percent in Greater Boston. How does that compare to what you've been seeing?
MOSCARITOLO: Definitely for the first quarter of the year, it's been down. And the downward spiral, in a sense, has been led by business travel. I would call those travelers the road warriors — they propelled our visitor industry over the last two to three years — but starting in October, man, that slowed down.
That aside, what's really helped us has been the spike in leisure travel.
So leisure travel is doing OK?
MOSCARITOLO: Leisure travel is doing OK. There are some changes. They're coming from closer in. They're tending now to drive rather than fly. And they are looking for deals.
Does that mean, do you think, more "stay-cations" this summer? More Massachusetts tourists or New Englanders visiting Boston, staying close to home?
MOSCARITOLO: I think that's absolutely what's going to happen for the summer months. Because consumer confidence, while it has rebounded, people are still a little nervous about what's around the corner. So they're holding on to those dollars.
Let's talk a little more about corporate travel. It's driven the success of the visitor industry, as you've said. But it's down 12 percent in the first quarter of this year. How has the convention industry in Boston been affected by the economy? We've been told by the Boston Convention Center that they're not doing too badly because their events are planned far in advance through the next few years.
MOSCARITOLO: The smaller corporate meetings, those are the ones that were most at risk. The large association meetings, we've actually seen some attendance records set. The area that has not been as strong is the trade show business. But that fits the new normal in terms of these corporate cutbacks and refocusing on how companies are doing business.
We've heard that many hotels in the city, especially the high-end ones — the fairly new Mandarin for example — are having trouble filling rooms. How far has hotel occupancy dropped and are the hotels struggling?
MOSCARITOLO: In the first quarter of the year, we're down about 8 percent from where we were in the first quarter of 08. And most of that drop has unfortunately been in the corporate side. And those travelers tend to stay at high-end hotels. So it stands to reason that the higher-end hotels are the ones that are doing not as well as the mid-priced brands.
What's your best guess, at this moment in this economy, as to when that kind of travel's going to come back?
MOSCARITOLO: I think the corporate travel will probably rebound in late-third quarter of the year, fourth quarter.
Let me come back to tourism here and ask you about the Tall Ships event for this summer. The organizers in the city are kind of locked in a dispute over who's going to pay security costs and when those bills are going to be paid: Are they going to be paid up front or are they going to be paid after the event is over with? From your point of view, how important is it that this dispute be worked out, so that this event comes off? How important is this event to the city of Boston this summer?
MOSCARITOLO: It's a very important event. Based on history, when they were here in 92 and then again in 2000, huge generators of people, of spending. Lots of activity. The restaurants, the hotels, everybody did really well.
Bottom line, Pat. For the convention and for the tourism visitor industry this summer, will it be a lean summer or will it be better than a lean summer?
MOSCARITOLO: I think it definitely will be better than a lean summer. You will probably not see as many international visitors this summer as you saw last summer. You probably will not see as many visitors from other parts of the United States. You will see people more from in and around the region — Massachusetts, New England, New York.
But I still believe that you will see as many people this summer as you saw last summer. The spending impact, however, will not be as dramatic, this summer.
This program aired on May 14, 2009.
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