Like a lot of local business owners, Virginia Whetstone has learned how to become a hurricane damage mitigation expert — a skill she never hoped to acquire.
Whetstone’s commercial interests include Whetstone Chocolates stores on King Street, St. George Street and Anastasia Boulevard as well as two waterfront hotels at the base of the Bridge of Lions.
She had to postpone the grand opening one hotel, the newly christened Marker 8 Hotel & Marina, and move the furniture from rooms in the Edgewater Inn to protect it from possible flood damage.
The King Street chocolates store was closed last year for six weeks after sustaining flood damage in Hurricane Matthew. So this year, the building was fortified and suffered only minor damage in Hurricane Irma.
It’s been the kind of experience Whetstone and others would have preferred to avoid, but at least they’re able to look forward to better times more than a month after Irma hit the area.
Part of the optimism is the fact that St. Augustine is already starting to string the wire for Nights of Lights, which kicks off Nov. 18.
“We’re not where we should be for October,” Whetstone said of local tourism. “I think in November, though, it will pick up. Nights of Lights will certainly help. I’m definitely looking forward to an increase in tourism because you can tell just driving around town and being in business that it’s definitely off.”
The Nights of Lights celebration was a big boost for tourism last year after Matthew, which swept through town in October 2016.
Many in the tourism industry are looking for another bump.
In fact, some business leaders were already looking toward the annual holiday celebration just a few weeks after Irma passed.
“I do believe by the time Nights of Lights arrives, people will be especially ready and looking forward to enjoying the Christmas and holiday season,” said Dave Chatterton, general manager for Old Town Trolley Tours, in a Sept. 27 email to The Record.
“I believe Nights of Lights will be as strong or possibly slightly stronger than prior years.”
One of downtown St. Augustine’s top attractions, the St. Augustine Distillery, also suffered a big drop in business immediately after the hurricane. Like other business leaders, Distillery co-founder and president Philip McDaniel said the significance of the Nights of Lights can’t be overstated.
“Night of Lights is one of the most important annual marketing and community events for St. Augustine,” McDaniel said in an email to The Record.
Getting more visitors walking around town during Nights of Lights is perhaps more critical for attractions, stores and restaurants than for hotels.
According to data provided to the county visitors and convention bureau by Smith Travel, the lodging sector did not fare poorly in September despite the storm.
In fact, the occupancy rates for both August and September were better than 2016. Despite the hurricane, occupancy, average daily rate and supply were all up in September.
Richard Goldman, president and CEO of the VCB, said the numbers look good in part because of increased marketing efforts starting in August and because of an influx of evacuees and “second responders” like utility workers around the time of the storm.
But that didn’t help the other segments of the tourism industry much because so many of the visitors were not staying in hotels for leisure activity.
“It may seem small consolation to our attractions, restaurants and retailers as well as some of our beachfront lodging partners, but September STR figures were very positive,” Goldman said in an email to The Record. “Certainly evacuees and ‘second responders’ from outside St. Johns County (insurance adjusters, roofers, linesmen) played a role, but given the big lift in August and the first week and last week of September, we can also credit the enhanced advertising and promotional support behind ‘Easy Season’ (promotions) for these positive figures.
Goldman added that figures from October 2016 with Hurricane Matthew were significantly negative even with evacuees and second responders.
With such tough numbers, Goldman said the Nights of Lights event was particularly important last year in getting people back to St. Augustine.
Last year, the VCB cranked up the marketing effort around the holiday lights display. It worked so well that November 2016’s occupancy, average daily rate and revenue per room figures all increased compared to November 2015 even with the negative publicity of the hurricane just weeks earlier.
The VCB is doing the same thing this year — only with a little more lead time.
“The significant promotion of NOL helped move the needle in the wake of the storm,” Goldman said of 2016. “We think that the importance of the city and business community committing to deliver a great Nights of Lights experience goes well beyond a simple bump in lodging, especially last year.”
The event was a sign of the area’s resilience in the face of significant damage and the somewhat misleading perception outside the region that St. Augustine had been decimated by the storm.
“It helped us demonstrate to our prospective visitors, in a clearly believable fashion, that the tourism industry was recovered and fully operational,” Goldman said. “To us, regardless of its difficulty to measure, that resilience is an important takeaway from the last 12 months.”
McDaniel said last year’s Nights of Lights celebration was both a financial and emotional spark for the town.
“Last year, NOL brought much needed visitors and business to town,” he said. “Perhaps more importantly, it helped boost morale for locals who were struggling to recover from Hurricane Matthew.
“We are hopeful that we will see the same thing happen this year. Who would’ve ever dreamed we would have two named hurricanes hit our beloved city in less than a year.”