Tuesday, November 02, 1999

Heat kept tourism subdued

Attractions had varied year

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Tristate's summer tourism market had more peaks and dips than a thrill ride at Paramount's Kings Island.

        While many Greater Cincinnati attractions have reported good or better business than last year, others have reported lower-than-projected turnouts, industry sources said. Some tourist businesses blame the weather.

        “The hot weather definitely kept some people away,” said Jim Epperson, director of the Ohio Department of Travel and Tourism. A solid month of 90-degree days in July most likely kept folks within the state at home instead of going to amusement parks and zoos, he said.

        Officials at Kings Island, the crown jewel of Warren County's $268 million tourism industry, said business was definitely hurt by the sweltering heat in July and by soggier conditions this fall.

        Without providing firm numbers, officials at the Mason-based amusement park reported a slight drop in attendance this year, despite two new multimillion-dollar rides — Face-Off and Drop Zone. Last year, Kings Island attracted 3.4 million visitors.

        “It is unfortunate, but that is the nature of the theme park business,” said spokesman David Mandt. “Whenever you have an entertainment business outdoors, weather will definitely play a role in how successful or unsuccessful you are.”

        Cincinnati's signature riverfront event, Tall Stacks, was also hindered by weather. Planners blamed the event's rainy opening on Oct. 13 and soggy finale for lower than anticipated crowds.

        Attendance at this year's Tall Stacks was 22 percent lower than predicted. Preliminary figures released late last month showed the event attracted 660,000 people over its five-day run, Oct. 13-17.

        That's lower than predictions of 850,000.

        Despite those disappointments, there were events to brag about, said officials at the Cincinnati Convention and Vis itors Bureau.

        “I think we had a wonderful summer season that was enhanced by the fact that we had so many new products to offer visitors this year,” said Gayle Harden-Renfro, communications director for the bureau. “During our peak this summer, we took an estimated 9,000 calls from people inquiring about events and tourism sites. And it's only going to get better as we enter the fall.”

        The bureau projected 237,000 room-nights would be booked this year. But through the end of July, area motels and hotels had already booked 185,000 room-nights, more than three-quarters of the way to the goal, Mrs. Harden-Renfro said.

        She said despite the less-than-expected attendance at Kings Island and Tall Stacks, both were successes.

        “You have to look at things from a positive perspective and examine the larger picture,” she said. “So Tall Stacks didn't bring in a million people. It still brought in nearly 700,000 and generated an estimated $30 million to $35 million for the city over five days. That's still pretty good, if you ask me.”

Balancing out
        Diverse attractions are credited with boosting Greater Cincinnati's economy with $3.1 billion spent by 4.6 million tourists in 1998. And local tourism experts expect this year's late-spring and summer travel season to be on par with or better than last year's.

        Leading the way: the Cincinnati Zoo's manatee exhibit, the Oceanic Adventures Newport Aquarium and the Cincinnati Reds.

        Despite a slow start, officials at the Newport aquarium say attendance has exceeded expectations. Spokeswoman Lisa Popyk said more than 800,000 people have visited since the aquarium opened in May.

        “About 55 percent of those visitors are coming from outside the Greater Cincinnati area,” she said.

Ripple effect
        The aquarium's success has translated into a 12 percent increase over last year's hotel occupancy rate in Northern Kentucky, according to Barbara Dozier of the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau. She said Northern Kentucky hotels have sold 103,557 more rooms in 1999 than at this time last year.

        Randall Giles and his wife, Val, of Toledo, stayed in Newport all last week and hit the aquarium three times. They were also able to catch the ceremony when the World Peace Bell was hung in its pavilion at Fourth and York streets.

        “The aquarium is everything we thought it would be,” Mr. Giles said. “It's a great facility, and it's going to bring people to Newport for years to come.”

        “I think we actually underestimated the strength of the aquarium,” said Ms. Dozier. “It has been a strong magnet for us economically. Plus when you put on top of that what the Reds were able to accomplish, it's no wonder we've had such a great year.”

        Tourism surged along with the new-look Reds, whose surprising turnaround and late-season run at the playoffs drew 2,061,222 fans downtown for 82 home games. Last year the Reds attracted a total of 1.8 million.

        Visits to the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal are 74 percent ahead of last year, thanks in part to the “Mysteries of Egypt” exhibit, which generated about $500,000 in revenue. Another asset: the Children's Museum, which wasn't open last summer. From June through August, Museum Center visitors totaled 425,733, up from 244,838 a year ago.

Concert sales strong
        While attendance figures weren't released, officials at Cincinnati's other art venues also reported a strong summer season. The Cincinnati Opera sold out tickets for the season, while the Symphony Pops Orchestra and Riverbend Music Center also reported improved attendance.

        Officials at Coney Island in Anderson Township say the addition of a steel roller coaster — the Pepsi Python — helped boost attendance by almost 10 percent this season.

        Meanwhile in Warren County, tourism officials estimate the county's second-largest industry is slightly ahead of last year's pace, led by events such as the Great American Insurance ATP Championship and the Kroger Senior Golf Classic.

        Phillip Smith, ATP communications director, said the two-week event broke attendance records for 10 of its 13 sessions, drawing 171,219 tennis fans. He expects the economic impact to eclipse its average of $20 million.

        Officials at the Beach Waterpark in Mason reported a 6 percent increase in attendance over last year. The park draws an average of 350,000 visitors.

        “We expected to see a few more people this season with the (warmer) weather patterns and all, but it was still a great year for us,” said Margaret Drexel, park spokeswoman.


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