Aftershocks Hit Vineyard Businesses

By MANDY LOCKE

With the tragedies of Sept. 11 forcing many vacationers to postpone or altogether cancel their autumn trips to the Island, some Vineyard businesses find themselves in an unexpected financial pinch.

While the slowdown is inevitably affecting the Island economy, most business owners are taking the hit with patience and understanding.

"This is not just an inconvenience, this is an attack on mankind," said Sandy Berube of the Jonathan Munroe House in Edgartown.

When flight irregularities and the nearly week-long shutdown of Logan airport forced many guests to cancel their trips, many inn owners waived standard cancellation fees.

Jeff Crocker, owner of the Crocker House Inn in Vineyard Haven, said that making exceptions for travelers right now is only decent.

"We've done what we would want someone to do for us," Mr. Crocker said. He has tried to accommodate guests in finding another time to visit or completely refunded their money. Ms. Berube said the Jonathan Munroe House, too, has refunded thousands of dollars.

"This isn't the time to argue with people," Mr. Crocker added.

But cancellations have stretched far beyond the week of Sept. 11. Fear of traveling and a desire to stay near loved ones top the list of reasons guests are giving for canceling their trips well into the end of September and even through October.

September - the most popular wedding month on the Vineyard - typically attracts hundreds of brides and bridegrooms and their loved ones to the Island. Innkeepers note that few weddings have been canceled altogether, but they have seen a scaling back in size of the wedding party.

Liz McFarlin said a wedding party she hosted at the Lambert's Cove Inn the weekend following the terrorist attacks left her with vacant rooms.

"We took a hard hit with that wedding. We'd already cooked the lobsters for the full party," Ms. McFarlin said. "Of course, we're completely sympathetic with people not being able to come."

Janet Heath of the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust, who books many popular wedding spots including the Old Whaling Church and the Dr. Daniel Fisher House, said she's noticed a reduction of five to 10 per cent in guest lists. No groups, however, completely canceled their weddings.

"People are really trying to go on with their lives," Ms. Heath said.

While bed and breakfast spots have experienced heavy numbers of cancellations, their losses have been partially offset by travelers rerouting their vacations from overseas to the Vineyard. Ms. Berube said one honeymoon couple decided to celebrate their post-wedding trip on Martha's Vineyard rather than in Europe. She also remembered booking a stay for a New York city-bound California couple who opted to visit the Vineyard instead of the city.

Mr. Crocker attributed this new influx of visitors to people preferring to drive to their destination rather than fly. He's certain this trend will continue to benefit the Island economy.

"Long-term, people are going to get behind their cars. Usually people were willing to drive a radius of about 200 miles. I think that distance will increase to between 350 and 400 miles," he said.

Besides being in an optimal location, many believe the apparent safety of the Island will draw vacationers.

"This may feel like a safe place for people," Ms. McFarlin said.

"We are all of a sudden becoming much more desirable than other places," said Maureen Sullivan, an event coordinator for Group Reservations Services of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.

"We do have one of the last bastions of tranquility and safety," agreed Peter Fyler, a Realtor at Barbara Nevin Real Estate in Edgartown. He expects this to draw a large crowd of vacation renters to the Vineyard next season.

Another silver lining to the economic cloud that hangs over America, Mr. Fyler said, is the positive effect on the Island real estate market. He speculated people have been and will continue to be pulling their money out of stocks and seeking more stable investments such as property. In fact, he already began noticing the trend earlier this season with the softening of the economy.

Theresa Brewster, manager of Alchemy restaurant in Edgartown, said that sheer distance from New York city and Washington, D.C., may be saving the Vineyard the economic jolt it might otherwise experience.

"We're not quite close enough to be affected horribly," she said. In fact, Ms. Brewster said that Alchemy's business may be even higher this September than last.

Gail DiCarli, bartender at the Ocean View restaurant in Oak Bluffs, said she hadn't noticed the slowdown that economists predicted.

"People are not being stingy at all with their pocketbooks," she said.

Ms. McFarlin, however, did say she's noticed a reduction in patrons at the Lambert's Cove Inn restaurant.

"There seems to be a momentum that slowed the restaurant down in a way it hasn't affected the inn," she said.

Others business owners can't shake their concern, either.

Ms. Berube keeps waiting for the typical onslaught of calls to make reservations for next June and July. Those aren't coming, she said.

"I'm not so much worried about feeling unsafe in America. I'm worried about economic repercussions," Ms. Berube said.

Meanwhile, people are trying to resume their daily lifestyle, which includes travel. While many remain fearful about flying, Cape Air reported this week that their number of passengers now equals the number they had in the week prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. And considering that those pre-Sept. 11 figures represented the hectic period of Labor Day, current numbers give cause for hope.

"We're going to be healthy," said Renee Josephson, Cape Air station manager at the Martha's Vineyard airport.

Ms. Josephson said that the airline, too, has been patient with travelers' hesitations and last-minute cancellations.

"There aren't just customers, they are our friends and neighbors," she said.