By JOY CRIST
The week of Thanksgiving has historically been considered the last big bang for a number of island businesses. It’s typical to see a flutter of activity leading up to the weekend after Turkey Day, and then relative quiet as restaurants and shops close for the season, and spend a couple months gearing up for the spring’s new wave of visitors.
But if you’ve been out and about on Hatteras Island this past week, it certainly doesn’t feel like the off season has officially arrived.
The temperatures have been deceiving to be sure, but there’s also still plenty of “open” signs up and down the island, even in the wee hours of the night – (also known locally as around 8:00 p.m.)
So is it our imaginations, or is Hatteras Island gradually turning into more of a year-round destination?
To effectively notice the increase in wintertime business, it helps if you remember the winter landscape of the islands in the 1980s and 90s. Personally, I recall coming down for weekends in December and January while I was in school in Raleigh, and frequenting two spots that were reliably open – the relatively new Food Lion, and this ridiculously neat Avon hang-out that, to the best of my recollection, was a mechanic and body shop by day, and a hopping bar by night.
Outside of personal experience, it helps even more to look at the numbers.
A series of statistics provided by the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau are a reliable indication that we are definitely becoming more popular in the wintertime, but it’s been a gradual process with a couple of speedbumps along the way – i.e., 2011’s Irene and 2012’s Sandy.
In 2004, the entire Outer Banks had a total gross occupancy income of 1,686,783 during the month of January, and in 2017, this number was 7,131,148 – roughly a 423% increase over the course of 13 years. (Per the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, these numbers are based on the total gross $ reported to Dare County for occupancy tax.)
And out of all of the months during the year, January had the highest percentage of increase in occupancy from 2004 to 2017. Just as a comparison, the gross occupancy for all of the Outer Banks in July was 77,491,509 in 2004, and 140,228,393 in 2017 – a roughly 181% increase.
Locally on Hatteras Island, the numbers are also increasing, but at more modest rate.
Here’s some more interesting stats that examine our wintertime visitors:
• Gross occupancy for Hatteras Island for January 2017 was 2,112,773, which was a 21.2% increase over January 2016’s gross occupancy of 1,742,967.
• Gross occupancy for Hatteras Island for February 2017 was 1,189,726, which was a 22.8% increase over February 2016’s gross occupancy of 969,139.
• The Cape Hatteras National Seashore had 60,060 visitors in January 2017 and 53,342 visitors in January 2013 – an 11.2% increase over five years.
• The Cape Hatteras National Seashore had 60,386 visitors in December 2016 and 45,392 visitors in December 2013 – a 24.8% increase over four years.
So visitation is on the rise in the wintertime, but what about the new wave of local businesses that are still open after Thanksgiving? Are they staying open in response to the increase in visitation, or is the increase because they are staying open?
The business owners and staff I chatted with while enjoying some wonderfully stress-free Christmas shopping - (and eating) - listed a few common reasons as to why they are staying open year-round, or at least for a good chunk of the winter:
- Local benefit. Our local population needs to shop, eat, drink, fish, and enjoy a little entertainment, and every businesses I chatted with wanted to make sure the local population was taken care of, and could shop or dine locally as opposed to making a trek up the beach. In addition, business owners with employees noted that taking care oftheir staff was a top concern. (More on that in a moment.)
- Visitors. You’re not crazy for thinking that there’s more traffic than usual for this time of year. With the incredible temperatures and fishing, there has been an influx of day-trippers, homeowners, and vacationers who are smartly taking advantage of the gorgeous weather. Businesses have noticed too, and are keeping their doors open for a while longer. Just look at Avon Fishing Pier which stayed open longer than intended due to exceptional fishing conditions and demand.
- The power outage and storm recovery. Losing a prime week in July affected most everyone on the island, (especially considering that many businesses were still recovering from 2016’s Matthew), and a number of folks are staying open longer to hopefully recoup some of these losses. This wasn’t as prominent a reason as catering to the locals and off-season visitors, but it was a common theme throughout the island.
Steve Nelson, owner of Café Pamlico and the Inn on Pamlico Sound has been staying open year-round – or at least trying to, barring storms - since his business originated.
And a good reason for this effort, (which is a common sentiment of many recent conversations with business owners), is to drive more business to Hatteras Island.
“There are places that are colder and more distant than us that still have viable off seasons,” says Nelson. “Look at Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard. Closer to home, look at Manteo.”
He notes that drawing more people into his establishment isn’t necessarily the end goal. Instead, the end goal is to draw more people to the southern Outer Banks in general.
“Nobody on this island is my competitor…. Our competitor is Manteo, Nags Head, Hilton Head, or Myrtle Beach,” he says. “A car in someone else’s parking lot is not bad news for me, because that car might be in our parking lot tomorrow. However, a car in the parking lot of a business on, say, Emerald Isle is bad news for me.”
Nelson points out that more year-round business translates to more visitors, more employment opportunities, and a better community on the whole.
“It’s starting to turn,” he says, noting that more and more businesses are staying open longer after two consecutive years of their seasons being cut short by hurricanes in 2011 and 2012. “If enough businesses stay open here, and we market [the island] together and let people know this is a cool and affordable place to go in the off season, we can create jobs that our children can return to, or never have to leave.”
Nelson says that he’s happy if he breaks even in the winter, but like many area restaurants and stores, he offers incentives to entice the local traffic. This year, Café Pamlico is offering a budget-friendly winter menu, as well as their standard 20% locals’ discount.
“The goal is to issue a paycheck, and we stay open all year to issue paychecks.”
Now will we ever see a day when the winter months are as popular as the summer months? Highly doubtful, but that’s OK.
We’re not Myrtle Beach or Orlando, thank goodness, and like so many beach destinations north of Florida, our visitor population is naturally cyclical with the air and water temperatures.
With that being said, the visitors who do discover our island in the winter are treated to a much more unique landscape than in the summer. Any local will tell you that the islands are an entirely different place in the two opposing seasons, and the isolation and beauty of the winter deserves to be preserved.
Also, island businesses and their small teams of employees work 24/7 in the summertime, and the winter does provide many folks a rare opportunity to pause and catch their breath before the next busy year rolls in.
But there’s also plenty of benefits to go around from this gradual influx of visitors, and slightly longer seasons. It means more year-round job opportunities, more options for folks who want to shop local and support the local economy, and more business all around.
And considering that we live in a place where a hurricane or power outage can undo a year’s worth of income, more business is never a bad thing.