2016-06-02 / Front Page

Newport Restaurants Flourishing

By Olga Enger

As Newport enters another tourist season, the economic forecast remains strong after a record-breaking 2015 – yet one sector’s explosive growth is exceeding even optimistic predictions.

“There isn’t a sector that is more dynamic than food and beverage. People are in a feeding frenzy. Visitors are looking for that unique restaurant, the authentic experience,” said Evan Smith, CEO of Discover Newport.

Just how much growth have local restaurants experienced?

“Last year, meal and beverage tax revenues were up almost 10 percent, and already this year we are seeing an additional 10 percent growth on top of that,” said Smith.

Following a national trend of culinary tourism, Smith’s team expected local growth, but they did not forecast 20 percent over two years. “That’s good news for Newport restaurants. They have worked very hard to offer a quality product. If we didn’t have good food, I don’t think we would get as much of the market share,” said Smith.

The tourism economy is made up of seven sectors: lodging, attractions, shopping, dining, recreation, transportation and special events.

“It’s interesting to see how much of the family travel budget is being invested into food. Americans are prioritizing the dining experience; they are putting more money into food and beverage than any other sector,” said Smith.

Outside of the noteworthy growth in dining, the industry as a whole may look forward to a strong 2016 season.

“In 2015, we enjoyed the most successful summer in the past 15 years,” said Smith. “Provided the weather is cooperative, gas prices stay low, and the global political climate doesn’t experience any major disruptions, I’m confident we’ll continue to ride that wave.”

After the Memorial Day weekend, the Newport County Visitor’s Center reported one trend that stood out against previous years.

“We had a lot of repeat visitors this year. At the Visitor’s Center, we are used to seeing mostly first-time visitors,” said Smith. “The fact that our appeal is strong enough to bring them back is a very good sign of our vitality. That’s really a function of how hard our business partners have been working to expand new tours, new stores, new restaurants and attractions.”

Business owners confirmed Smith’s observations.

“We had a really busy stretch from Friday to Monday,” said Stephanie Bennett, owner of Scratch Kitchen and Catering on Broadway. Although Scratch has served mostly local diners since opening last May, the weekend brought visitors who were in town for graduations and vacation.

Construction on Broadway generated a lull in springtime business, but the Memorial Day weekend was not impacted, Bennett reported.

“I can’t say that what was going on out there hurt us. People still made their way over here. On Friday, we got our parking back and we watched it fill in immediately,” said Bennett.

“We are ready for a big summer,” said Brick Alley Pub owner Matt Plumb. “I don’t see many vacant storefronts anymore. That’s usually a good sign.” His restaurant was at capacity during Memorial Day weekend, which is consistent with previous holiday weekends.

“Our guest counts have stayed the same for a long, long time, which is great. How profitable we are is another thing. With food, transportation and other costs, that’s what will drive success at the end of the year,” said Plumb.

Smith said with sunny skies on Saturday and Sunday, he was happy with the overall “weather scorecard” of the holiday weekend, despite Monday’s rain.

“With bad weather, we see a 30 to 40 percent cancellation in lodging activity,” said Smith. “So we lost some revenue on Monday.”

Some businesses profit from stormy weather.

“When it rains, you have a shift in the paradigm in who gains and who loses. More people are apt to go shopping, to the mansions, or seek out entertainment. Water tours, golfing and outdoor activities are going to be the larger benefactors of good weather,” Smith explained.

This year marks the first time Newport has hosted the World Match Racing Tour, which is providing the local economy another “early injection,” akin to last year’s Volvo Ocean Race event.

“Looking at this year versus 2015, the nice weather this past week has given us a healthy jump on the season,” said Alexa Furtado with Newport Marriott. “Guests are really excited about our beautiful hotel renovations. As a result, this past year we also experienced increased interest in our non-peak times, which we hope will continue.”

After the World Match Racing Tour leaves on June 4, Newport may look forward to the regular lineup of the Jazz and Folk festivals, tennis events, and the Black Ships Festival.

“Newport has as many events as any other American city I can think of,” said Smith. “There is a certain amount of lust after ‘What is the big new event?’ This isn’t a Tall Ship summer and last year we had the Volvo Ocean Race, but we shouldn’t take our all-star roster for granted.”

Positive press has also been contributing to Newport’s lure.

Earlier this year, Conde Nast Traveler named Newport as one of the “Most Beautiful Towns in America,” while nearby Bristol was called one of the “18 Most Interesting Destinations to Visit in the United States” by expedia.com. Recently, “CBS Sunday Morning” with Charles Osgood showcased Newport as the show broadcast on location, sharing the splendor of the City by the Sea with six million viewers.

The Newport travel season runs from early May through October.

“Although people sometimes think it ends on Labor Day, September and October are usually our strongest months,” said Smith.

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