The damage Hurricane Sandy brought to the Jersey Shore has been well documented, with scenes of devastation played out in newspapers and on television around the world.
The storm set in motion a frantic, six-month race to rebuild the Shore in time for Memorial Day, but it also launched an effort among the region's competitors to attract regular visitors who've grown wary there's no beach to return to here. And while New Jersey is spending $25 million in federal dollars on an advertising campaign to convince regular visitors to return, tourism agencies in other states also are boosting their advertising.
Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism, said his agency wants to be respectful of the Jersey Shore, but also wants to reach those vacationers who are considering new summer destinations.
"It could have easily been us — we know that," he said. "As a result, regardless of where a storm of that magnitude hits, anyone that wasn't as impacted, they're going to certainly reference the fact that we were spared, our beaches are ready."
Thomas said the storm made his agency reassess its marketing to its "drive-from" markets, which include Pennsylvania, parts of Ohio, and New Jersey. He said it's too soon to know what impact the storm will have on their success this summer, but the inquiries so far seem promising.
"I think there's the potential to see more first-time visitors here to the Delaware beaches versus the Jersey Shore," he said, "because I think there might be more of an incentive to explore."
Diane Wieland, director of tourism for Cape May County, said she was at a meeting with Southern Delaware Tourism officials discussing ways to co-promote their regions when she heard about the direction of her counterparts' marketing campaign.
"They were kind of hinting at their campaign being that they weren't touched," she said. "I'm like, 'Hey, we're in the room here.' "
Wieland said she doesn't blame them, saying she'd do the same thing if the roles were reversed. Both entities are going forward with the co-promotion, encouraging visitors to use the Cape May-Lewes Ferry and visit both states.
Losing visitors to other states would be painful for New Jersey's tourism industry, which brought in a record $40 billion last year. Gov. Chris Christie made his best sales pitch last week at a boardwalk reopening ceremony in Belmar, one of several pre-Memorial Day events he attended.
"The biggest reason that I want to come and open these boardwalks is because I want New Jersey — and the region and the country — to know that New Jersey has come back," he said, "that the summer will happen here in New Jersey and you need to bring your families here."
Jeff Vasser, executive director of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority, said Atlantic City missed the brunt of the storm, but still faces a perception problem, since "we're still lumped together as the Jersey Shore."
But Vasser said the storm's effect can work both ways.
"For the people in New Jersey or New York and all of the areas that were affected by the storm, it's been a rough winter and spring, and they're looking forward to the time to get away, get away from it all," he said. "For that reason, I'm optimistic."
Jennifer Stringfellow, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism, said the state is pushing an upbeat message in its ads. The federally funded tourism campaign bears the tagline "Stronger than the Storm." The tourism division's own campaign — which aims to attract repeat visitors from Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York — is "Get Back to Happy."
"We're optimistic that people will respond to our message," she said.
Stringfellow said the state saw an estimated 82.5 million visitors state last year, with roughly 73 percent — about 59 million people — visiting the shore. Most of those visits were to Atlantic City.
Vasser said his agency's messaging depends somewhat on location and whether would-be travelers are hearing local media accounts of the rebuilding, or only heard national media accounts of the destruction.
Wieland said she understands why out-of-state competitors would try to capitalize on the storm, but she said drawing such distinctions wasn't an option for lesser-hit areas in New Jersey, which "really needed to be sensitive, because Atlantic, Monmouth and Ocean counties — they're our partners."
Cape May County, which has a strong off-season tourism industry in addition to its summer season, initially focused its post-storm advertising around the idea of getting away from the stress.
"We just said, 'Come to the Jersey Cape and experience the calm,' " she said. That message was later supplanted with messages of "we're open for business" and then traditional summer advertising.
Donna Abbot, director of tourism for Ocean City, Md., said her agency's message hasn't changed as a result of the storm, though the agency has been stepping up its marketing spend, even before the storm.
"We've been very aggressive in promoting our marketing," she said. "We've had additional funds for advertising which has certainly helped, especially when there was a downturn in the economy."
Ocean City had one fishing pier damaged by the storm, but it will be rebuilt by summer, she said. Photos of the damaged pier also made the rounds in national media.
"You see the damage and you hope people don't think that's how it is all up and down the beach," she said. "Because it wasn't."
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