Because of the pandemic lockdowns and limits, tourism spending in New Jersey took a big hit in 2020, but merchants down the shore enjoyed a great bounce-back this summer.

During a Shoreview presentation at Stockton University on Thursday, Lori Pepenella, the CEO of the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce, said visitors flocked to the region in June, July and August.

“We were able to capture near capacity all summer, we did bring back events, modified so they were safe, but they were met with enthusiasm," she said.

She said the shore region benefitted from not having as much competition with air travel, with more people staying closer to home.

Larry Sieg, the CEO of Meet AC, noted there was a lot of live entertainment down the shore this summer, and that attracted a younger demographic that was more comfortable going out and attending events.

Michael Busler, a professor of business studies and finance at Stockton said there’s no hard data yet but “most of the businesses I’ve talked to told me that 2021’s summer season was about 10% higher in revenue than 2019, so I don’t want to compare it to 2020 because it was bad.”

According to data from the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism, 116 million Garden State visitors spent $46.4 billion in 2019, on lodging, food and beverage, retail, recreation and transportation. In 2020, the total was about $27 billion.

Busler said it’s significant to note most Jersey Shore merchants said revenue could have been significantly higher, but “practically every business told me that they had a very difficult time attracting enough labor to keep their business open for the number of hours that they wanted to keep them open.”

Jane Bokunewicz, Jamie Hoagland, Larry Sieg, Lori Pepenella, Michael Busler. (Photo by Diane D’Amico/Stockton University)

He said another factor that constrained profits was supply chain disruptions.

“Homebuilders had some trouble getting materials. A number of restaurants I talked to told me they had trouble getting some of the things they normally get. Seafood seemed to be a little bit of a problem for some of the restaurants,” he said.

Anther issue mentioned was less than ideal weather on several weekends during the summer.

Jane Bokunewicz, the faculty director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism in the Stockton University School of Business, said while more vehicles traveled on the Atlantic City Expressway in June of this year than in 2019, the number of casino employees in AC this past summer was about 5,000 below 2019 levels.

Busler said this change may become permanent because with the ongoing labor shortage “companies had to learn how to get more done with fewer people, they saw that they could do that so I doubt they’re going to bring all these people back.”

Sieg noted COVID looks like it will be with us in some form for quite a while.

“Businesses are going to have to really get proactive in accepting digital payment, digital wallets, whether it’s Apple pay, Google Pay, Venmo, whatever means it is," he said. “I think we’re going to continue to see more and more businesses require mandatory vaccination.”

Pepenella said businesses in the coming weeks and months will need to be more flexible with things like cancellation policies, and increase their use of technology to meet consumer demand.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.

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