BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — SALEM — Earlier this year, the Hawthorne Hotel had to deal with dozens of flooded rooms due to a broken water pipe, and in recent weeks, the city has been working feverishly to patch a sinkhole on the street near its front entrance.
However, these obstacles have not kept guests from flooding in to the historic hotel, its general manager says, and it’s not even October.
“It’s up enough to catch our notice,” general manager Juli Lederhaus said when asked about occupancy rates so far this summer.
If hotel occupancy is any indicator, it’s looking like a busy summer for Salem’s tourism industry.
The Salem Waterfront Hotel on Pickering Wharf is seeing an increase in its occupancy rate over last year, general manager Bill Carroll said.
“Occupancy is up this year,” Carroll said, “which we are excited about from our hotel’s perspective. We have seen an increase in traffic to Pickering Wharf, which means increased traffic for us.”
In the winter, the Hawthorne was forced to make extensive and expensive repairs after a burst pipe in the attic during a remodeling project poured the equivalent of an Olympic-sized swimming pool down six floors, Lederhaus said. Almost 50 rooms in the 93-room hotel had to close for several weeks until the hotel was able to fully reopen in April. The hotel has also had to contend with the city making repairs to a sinkhole at Hawthorne Boulevard and Essex Street.
Despite these challenges, Lederhaus said the hotel is bustling, and it’s not even the time when hundreds of thousands of tourists descend on Witch City for Haunted Happenings.
“July’s numbers are incredible, and it is looking like the rest of the summer will follow suit,” Lederhaus said. She said lower gas prices, a pent-up desire to take a vacation and the wish to stay close to home have helped tourists fill rooms. People are arriving from Canada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York, she said. Those guests she has spoken with have wanted to come to Salem for a while, while others are repeat visitors.
“I just think with today’s economy, they (tourists) are choosing to travel more regionally,” Carroll said. Visitors are finding it is better to stay in Salem, pay half the rate for a hotel in Boston and take a day trip to the city, than to stay in the Hub. Salem’s many restaurants are also proving to be a draw.
Richard Pabich and his wife, Diane, have run The Salem Inn on Summer Street for 30 years. He too can confirm what the hotel general managers are seeing, as his rooms are filling with tourists.
“Our year has been much better than last year, and definitely much better than two years ago,” Pabich said. The inn, with 40 rooms spread among three historic buildings, is on track to have its second best July ever.
“Salem is just perking along,” Pabich said. “It’s very wonderful.”
Tourists are drawn to the Witch Museum and other attractions tied to the 1692 witch trials, but they are also drawn to the city’s rich history: sites like the Peabody Essex Museum and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, to name a few. Tourists aren’t just coming from Massachusetts, but from the Midwest.
“They are our lifeblood, you know that,” Pabich said of the influx of tourists. “If it wasn’t for tourism, Salem would be a much different place.”
Another factor favoring Salem’s hotels is the filming of the Adam Sandler movie “Grown Ups 2,” in neighboring Swampscott and Marblehead. The film’s crew members have soaked up rooms in the 86-room Salem Waterfront Hotel, said Kate Fox, the executive director of Destination Salem, the city’s marketing organization.
“They are taking a lot of hotel rooms, and that sort of squeeze is really good,” Fox said.
That puts “compression pressure on other properties,” Lederhaus said.
Fox’s Destination Salem is a nonprofit public-private partnership funded by the city and its businesses. The city’s contribution comes from a portion of the city’s hotel tax, and Salem’s contribution to the organization was $187,500 this year, Fox said.
The city took in nearly $393,000 in hotel taxes in fiscal 2012.
The money, which represents an increase, has allowed Destination Salem to boost its marketing and advertising in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio and elsewhere in an attempt to get the word out about Salem.
“Both hotels have done a really good job of maximizing their niche market,” Fox said of the Hawthorne and Salem Waterfront hotels.
Hotel tax revenue is another indicator that the hotels, inns, and bed-and-breakfasts are busier this year than last. For this past March, April and May, a time of year that is typically slower than the fall, Salem saw a 6.7 percent increase in hotel taxes, according to information provided by Richard Viscay Jr., Salem’s director of finance. The city received $55,788 in hotel taxes in these three months, compared with $52,274 for March, April and May 2011. It’s the latest quarter for which the city has figures available.
Not every room is occupied in the city. Some of the bed-and-breakfasts in town are not full, while others are having strong seasons, Fox said.
“Feedback from retail is mixed, as well; some are doing great, and some are off a bit. Restaurants seem to be booming,” Fox said.
July and August are the city’s busiest tourist months, next to October, Fox said. However, rooms were also filling up in the winter.
The Hawthorne Hotel’s burst pipe happened during what is normally a slow season, but amid a mild winter, the number of people who passed through the National Park Service’s Salem Regional Visitor Center on New Liberty Street doubled from 3,759 in February 2011 to 7,614 in February 2012. It was at a time when the hotel did not have many rooms to spare.
“We did see the pressure through those months,” Lederhaus said, as people tried to book into the hotel.
Fox said the mild February weather drew folks to Salem who would otherwise have headed to the slopes to ski.
“The weather was marvelous for day-trippers,” Fox said.
At the height of the tourist season this past October, the visitors center counted 137,559 visitors, topping the 134,080 who arrived in 2004, the last time the one-month total topped 130,000.
The visitors center counts those who pass through its doors, Fox said. In October, it also counts those at a booth downtown. While there is no real way to count everyone who comes to the city, the visitors center’s methodology is consistent, so its counts allow tourism officials to spot trends.
Year-to-date, the number of visitors, at 83,109, is up 22 percent over last year, though the visitors center was closed for the first part of January 2011 when a new carpet was installed. While May saw a 4 percent dip in visitors counted, the number of visitors the center is counting is up by double digits. June saw 24,170 visitors to the center, which is up more than 12 percent from June 2011.
It’s estimated that last season’s tourist season, which was a busy one, pumped $100 million into Salem’s economy, Fox said. This year’s season could mean even more business if the bustling hotels are any indication.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.