The early signs are there, including the millions invested to improve the beach, although locals say more is needed
By Kyle Stucker
Hampton-North Hampton Patch , February 27, 2013
[The following article is courtesy of Hampton-NorthHampton.patch.com
Thriving year-round activity. Restaurants clanking with friendly conversation and bustling traffic. Children enjoying the sand, regardless of whether it burns their feet or makes them crave hot chocolate.
Those are just some of the goals held by nearly every New England beach community. Few have found the secret formula that yields the transformation of a beach town — one that's capable of drawing tens to hundreds of thousands of visitors on any given summer day — into a must-see destination that doesn't need to board up its shop windows once the leaves turn.
That said, Hampton Beach feels it's close.
Despite sizable snowstorms that have buried residents and washed out beachside roads in recent weeks, Hampton Beach has seen an encouraging uptick in visitation so far this off-season.
Area officials and businesses say the steps are small, although they believe Hampton Beach — less than a year after several substantial changes — is making gains toward fulfilling the seemingly-unattainable goal of becoming a year-round tourism hotbed.
"[Business] has actually been a little bit better," said Jess Dolmat, a bartender and manager at Ocean Wok, a popular year-round eatery on the south end of Ocean Boulevard, adding that she thinks overall visitation to Hampton Beach is also up. "For some reason here, sometimes the snow brings the people out to see the high tides and the [waves]."
While Dolmat said most of the signs indicate "it's too soon" to declare Hampton Beach a year-round destination, many have been hoping for years that the area could somehow include more spectacles and big tourism-drivers between Columbus Day and April — the so-called Hampton Beach off-season — rather than make people think of doing anything but go to the beach.
Beaches generating more offseason revenue
Extending the beach season has always been an issue for the Hampton and greater Seacoast areas, as the state officials estimate that Hampton Beach is New Hampshire's largest source of tourism — by far.
Tourists have spent their summers enjoying Hampton Beach — which has a year-round population of 2,275 according to the 2010 census, compared to a population of about 15,000 in the rest of Hampton — for over a century thanks to long-standing establishments like the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom and other attractions. Tourism and the summer season greatly expanded, though, in the 1950s thanks to substantial rental housing and business redevelopment along Ocean Boulevard, and the state estimates anywhere from a few thousand to more than a hundred thousand people visit the beach on a summer day.
Hampton Beach was seeing improved visitation numbers last year even before the snowstorms and the freak weather patterns that drove fall and winter temperatures into the 60s and 70s, according to parking meter revenues recorded across the entire Seacoast in September — the final month the state's meters are active — and anecdotal evidence gathered by state employees.
Amy Bassett, the New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation's public information officer, said $199,578.31 was generated by parking meters in September 2012 across the entire Seacoast. Even though that number does include the results of a recent rate increase, Bassett said the totals do indicate "there is an increase in visitation" when comparing that figure to the $156,836.53 generated in 2011, the $161,547.62 generated in 2010 and the $147,606.45 generated in 2009.
Bassett said there have been other rate changes over those years at various lots and locations, which is part of the reason why Bassett said she's comfortable stating there has been an increase in visitation despite the fact she said it isn't possible to draw a closer comparison by adjusting previous years' revenues based on Hampton Beach's new $2-an-hour rate.
"I think it’s getting more popular, and we can tell because more people are starting to come in," said Bassett, noting that a high number of international visitors come to Hampton Beach in the fall. "There were times in March  that we had a nice weekend and the beach was packed. There was 80-degree weather [in the off-season] last year. Of course, we were not open, but it took us two days clean up after that. It was packed. Especially if the weather is changing, I think we'll have more people come.
"I think it was a great season this year."
Beach communities are always strongly dependent on weather. Rain on a warm July day can be devastating to the tourism industry, just as large storms that wreak havoc on the tides can be a large visitation driver in the off-season.
Even if the weather encourages more people to come to Hampton Beach, many say there needs to be something for those individuals to do — which isn't always easy because most of Hampton Beach's shops, attractions and restaurants are padlocked or covered with plywood during the off-season.
Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce President Doc Noel said the "brand-new [Seashell Complex and Oceanfront Pavilion] alone certainly has enhanced" the breadth of options and the overall visitation "tremendously," even in the off-season. He also said he hopes it encourages small businesses in the area to improve or redevelop their stores and restaurants.
Noel also pointed to increased offerings from the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, which has stretched its concert season into November, and the Hampton Beach Area Commission as evidence that the beach season is extending. The Ballroom is seen by Noel and others as a key piece of the off-season puzzle, and many believe the iconic business' changes will drive more off-season foot traffic to the area in upcoming years.
There are a number of other businesses that stay open year-round, including the Ashworth By The Sea, Stacey Jane's, Ocean Gaming, Jumpin' Jacks Java, Ocean Wok, Wally's Pub, and several motels. Noel said the total number of year-round businesses actually increased this past year — albeit by one — thanks to new hours at La Bec Rouge.
Even with that increase, Noel said the total number of year-round businesses is a small fraction of the total number of shops open in the summer season. He said the aforementioned businesses equate to roughly three-to-five blocks of what's open during the summer.
Noel and Hampton Parks and Recreation Director Dyana Martin said the biggest way Hampton Beach could draw more people — locals as well as residents from throughout New Hampshire and surrounding states — is through businesses taking a collective risk and eschewing the "business decisions" that make them close down during the off-season.
"Everybody’s got to work together to get things done down there," said Martin, noting that revenues from town-owned parking lots were "relatively flat" in September 2012 compared to previous years.
"That’s the way it’s going to happen. Everybody’s got to work together to make that happen in my opinion, and that’s doable. I think everyone has good relationships, and that's what I think’s going to make it work. We all have to be invested in it."
It's been done before
Hampton Beach — a nationally-recognized "Five Star" beach for two years in a row — isn't in uncharted waters, as other beach communities have found ways to turn their warm-weather swoons into sustained activity throughout the year.
Rehoboth Beach, Del., is one of those communities. Recently-renewed focuses on "main street"-style programs and highly successful annual festivals like Mardi Gras in February and the Chocolate Festival in March have served as catalysts for annually attracting 3.5 million tourist trips that generate $630 million in total economic impact in the year-round beach town, in addition to getting local residents down to the oceanfront, according to reports.
"Main Street's Mardi Gras Weekend and Gumbo Cook-off combine with the lure of Presidents' Day and Valentines Day to bring merchants February numbers that look like August," Rehoboth Beach Main Street Director Fay Jacob said in a 2009 story posted on PreservationNation.org. "Our slogan 'Year 'Round Beach Town' has stuck, and we are now known as a 12-month resort community."
Hampton Beach does have annual events that draw thousands of locals and out-of-staters to the area in non-traditional beach months, including the Reach the Beach Relay, Penguin Plunge, Half at the Hamptons (an annual scenic half-marathon that was canceled this year due to weather) and the Easter Egg Dig, in addition to the annual three-day Hampton Beach Seafood Festival.
The latter, immensely popular event is capable of drawing hundreds of thousands of people to Hampton in September and is often viewed as the "last" weekend of the season, although local officials say more could be done to increase the number of attractions through the rest of the fall, winter and spring to achieve results similar to Rehoboth Beach's Mardi Gras and Chocolate Festival celebrations.
It takes more than just a village, and a village precinct
Just because you host it doesn't mean the people will come, though, which is something Martin and her event-focused department has painfully come to find out in the past.
Hampton Rec used to hold numerous concerts in downtown Hampton's Marelli Square gazebo, although Martin said "only a few people would come" on a given night. The department "couldn't really afford to shell out $2,000" from its tight budget "if people didn't come," and that risk and expense is magnified greatly when trying to plan an even larger event or festival, she said.
"You have to have something on a larger scale, and our department [and singular entities] couldn't pull that off alone," said Martin.
Martin said the opportunity is there, but also said larger strides need to be made in order to turn the increase in the number of people who say "how much nicer the beach is" into an actual, calculable increase in tourism and revenue.
"Once other businesses are open longer, we and others will be forced to open longer," said Martin. "Change has come, but if new businesses and more businesses began staying open longer [it would lead to more events and attractions]. If that happens, I think that — especially with the people who live here year-round — the off-season would definitely be the season they'd want to come down [to the beach].
"It's not cost-effective to be open longer at this point, but it may be in the near future. There are things that can be done, and I think eventually businesses will step up and things will be added on and it’ll be more of a destination throughout the year."