2015-09-17 / Front Page

A Summer for the Records

By Olga Enger

This season, Newport experienced a record number of visitors who spent more money in restaurants, bars and hotels than any summer over the past 15 years.

After suffering sharp declines after Sept. 11 and the economic downturn of 2008, this year is expected to surpass pre-9/11 numbers for the first time.

According to June data, which is the most recent available, hotel receipts are up more than 10 percent over last year and meal and beverage tax revenues are up almost 12 percent. July and August data is expected to come in even higher, according to hotel occupancy and rate reports.

Headed into the season, officials were concerned about the sale of the Newport Yachting Center, which hosted concerts and events during the summer. However, Midtown Oyster Bar General Manager Charlie Holder said the change turned out to be positive for the restaurant, which is a short walk from the site.

“The fact that 120 parking spaces opened up at the Yachting Center has been a big help,” said Holder. “That’s an average of 300 people who come down and spend money. The only thing we missed was that the Yachting Center brought local, familiar faces.” Holder added the Volvo Ocean Race provided a jump-start to what turned out to be a “tremendous season” for the restaurant.

Last fiscal year, both the Newport hotel tax and the meal tax generated $2 million, totaling $4 million in tax revenue. Middletown brought in $745,821 in hotel tax and $650,757 in meals tax. There are 2,018 rooms available in Newport and 1,403 rooms in Middletown, including bed and breakfasts and inns.

The increase in revenues is due to more visitors as well as increased prices. Compared to last year, the July nightly hotel rate jumped 7.6 percent to $305 per night in Newport and 8.2 percent to $173 per night in Middletown. During the same period, Newport and Middletown hotels were 86 percent and 83 percent booked, respectively, which is an increase of several percentage points in both communities.

Newport is the only municipality in the state that collects its own hotel tax, which is six percent. One percent goes directly into the city’s general fund. The remaining five percent is allocated to Discover Newport (47 percent), the City of Newport (25 percent), the Department of Economic Development (21 percent), and the Greater Providence/ Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau (seven percent).

The state collects an additional seven percent sales tax from hotel guests, which brings the total tax a guest pays to 13 percent.

Although food costs have increased over the past few years, Matthew Plumb, owner of Brick Alley Pub, said the majority of local restaurants have absorbed the cost.

“Customers will only pay so much, there is a price point.” Plumb said. “So from a tax revenue perspective, the increase is probably because there are more restaurants and more people out dining. There are so many new restaurants in town, and they are really good,” said Plumb. “Instead of experiencing a dip in sales, as we may have expected, we stayed even this year. I could tell just from the sidewalks, Newport was busier; there were more people out and about this year.”

Evan Smith, president of Discover Newport, said that he was “feeling great” about the spike in numbers and attributed it to four factors: a high national consumer confidence index, good weather, low gas prices and effective marketing techniques from the city’s private sector.

“Newport’s tourism is heavily impacted by weather. When it rains, we see a 30 percent cancellation rate in the hotels,” Smith explained. “The weather gods were with us this year.”

“Volvo was a huge help,” Smith confirmed. “When you look at the numbers for May, you will see an increase in lodging. But we see a more significant increase in food and beverage during the event, especially mid-week.”

He added that events are important to tourism, but they are only one part of the puzzle.

“The travel industry is amazingly competitive,” said the tourism expert. “To continue to earn our market share, our visitor experience has to be strong and it has to be authentic. We have to be committed to delivering a visitor experience year after year.”

A new development in that local experience is culinary tourism.

“Food has always been part of it, but I was surprised to learn how many tourists came to Newport to try a restaurant or chef this year,” said Smith. “Many people came here just to try a burger at Mission, after it won best burger in Rhode Island.”

Surprisingly, Rhode Islanders make up only a small percentage, or eight percent, of the city’s tourists. Over 56 percent of Newport visitors come from Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut or New Jersey.

“Rhode Islanders don’t come in July and August,” Smith explained. “It’s just part of the Rhode Island culture.”

Although the season has not officially wrapped up, Smith predicts, barring any fourth quarter catastrophes, the city will enjoy its best year in 15 years.

“We went into this year worried. We didn’t know the impact of the Yachting Center, but we were hoping for the best,” Smith said. “I didn’t predict a record-breaking year. We were ecstatic to see this season unfold as it did.”

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