THE JERSEY SHORE -- It could have been worse. That was the judgment of amusement operators and other business owners up and down the Jersey Shore at the end of summer, before a massive six-alarm fire broke out Sept. 12 on the boardwalk of the towns of Seaside Park and Seaside Heights. The fire destroyed about 30 businesses.
Concerning this year's summer season, Superstorm Sandy, which landed in late October last year, left the fabled amusement destinations devastated. Many naysayers had written off the prospects of shore businesses returning this season. The office of Gov. Chris Christie placed the price tag of the Oct. 29 storm at $38 billion worth of damage statewide. Accompanying that damage were the images of devastation, chief among them Seaside Heights' Jet Star roller coaster resting awkwardly in the surf.
Flashback To Opening Days
||ON THE AIR: Gov. Chris Christie welcomes NBC Today Show host Matt Lauer to Seaside Heights for ceremonies marking the launch of “Stronger than the Storm” campaign at the start of the Jersey Shore summer season. The historic recreational area suffered tremendous damage during last fall’s Superstorm Sandy, a once-in-two-centuries’ collision of a hurricane and a nor’easter that drove a record-breaking storm surge ashore.
|CUT BUT NOT DRY: Crowd of locals and visitors braves heavy summer rainstorm to cheer as Gov. Christie cuts ribbon to kick off “Stronger than the Storm” campaign in Seaside Heights. New Jersey’s Atlantic shoreline, extending more than 200 miles from Sandy Hook to Cape May, was the incubator of coin-operated amusements in the eastern half of the country, and its classic arcade tradition possesses unique historical importance.
|DUELING CHEFS: At right, Bobby Flay, known from his Food Network appearances and exploits as an “Iron Chef,” greets fans during his appearance in Keyport, NJ, at the state’s “Stronger than the Storm” celebration. He then entered the lists against local favorite Andrew Araneo, chef at Drew’s Bayshore Bistro. After the passage at arms, local favorite Araneo was awarded the guerdon. Keyport, the “pearl” of Raritan Bay, was hard-hit by Sandy.
What followed during the ensuing months was nothing short of a herculean task to rebuild the infrastructure. Work crews were onsite around the clock hammering down new boardwalks to replace those washed away in the storm and repairing damaged structures. And never far from the sound of construction was a constant stream of celebrities and luminaries. An aggressive media blitz called "Stronger Than the Storm" was rolled out with a ubiquitous theme song.
"We met the deadlines. Everything that was anticipated to be open, opened," said Kimberle Samarelli of the New Jersey Amusement Association. "While some amusement parks were limited, not one park stayed closed for the season. And all the boardwalks were rebuilt."
Samarelli's views were echoed by amusement operators along the Jersey Shore. So, by the time the official start of the season kicked off with Memorial Day, the boardwalk arcades were open for business.
"Our arcade did really well," said Steve Whalen of Lucky Leo's (Seaside Heights). "Our August was better than 2012. Most of the people I talked to had also had a pretty strong August."
(Lucky Leo's, by the way, survived the September blaze. Other businesses were not as lucky. Among the buildings destroyed in the blaze were the Funtown Pier, which survived Sandy's surges, and Game Room 2, operated by NJAA president John Maurer, who also owns Coast to Coast Entertainment with partner Gary Balaban.)
While August was strong, June was anything but. Indeed, New Jersey could not have asked for worse weather at the start of the season. According to the office of the New Jersey State Climatologist: "Rain, rain and more rain was the theme for New Jersey weather in June 2013. When all was said and done, statewide average precipitation totaled 9.57 inches."
Meteorologists emphasized that this volume was far from being a sprinkle, but was record-breaking rain fall. In fact, the Jersey Shore started the season with the wettest June ever recorded, going back to 1895.
In Point Pleasant, the Jenkinson's Boardwalk complex also got off to slow start, but began to rebound by July 4, according Jenkinson's spokesperson Toby Wolf. "This summer we were more weather-dependent than usual," Wolf told VT.
Rough estimates seem to back up that conclusion. According to one survey of Seaside Heights, badge sales to gain access to the beach dropped 28% through Aug. 19. Another survey, conducted by the Asbury Park Press, found that beach revenue was down more than $4 million, compared with the previous year. The Wall Street Journal's survey found beach revenue down $3.5 million, dropping 13%, from $27.7 million to $24.2 million
Those numbers, while consistent with a rain-drenched June, do not indicate any severe dropoff in enthusiasm for "going down the shore." Indeed, in any other year, these numbers would be viewed as a disaster. However, following on the heels of Sandy and the enormous effort that went into getting the Jersey Shore ready for the summer season, businesses see this year's "down season" as better than it could have been.
PHOTO: Funtown Pier, a Sandy survivor, is destroyed in Sept. 12 blaze. The fire, which began at the Kohr's Frozen Custard stand on Seaside Park's boardwalk, claimed an estimated 68 buildings along four blocks. The fire has been ruled an accident. Demolition and cleanup of boardwalk businesses began in early October.
Operators Credit Ad Campaign
PHOTO: Baby black-footed (African) penguin, shown frolicking at Jenkinson’s Aquarium in Point Pleasant, NJ, was born just before the opening of this year’s summer season on the Jersey shore. Interest in the region’s recovery, coupled with the state’s “Stronger than the Storm” marketing campaign and the universal appeal of infant penguins, garnered an appearance for the bird on NBC’s Today Show – and positive PR for Point Pleasant.
It took more than hammers and nails to bring the Jersey Shore back from Superstorm Sandy. Images of the destruction caused many to start thinking of alternative vacation destinations. The question that lingered was whether or not the Garden State’s favorite resorts would ever be the same.
Enter East Rutherford, NJ’s MWW, a public relations agency. Launching a multimillion dollar “Stronger Than the Storm” campaign, MWW flooded local media and the Internet with Jersey Shore success stories, keeping the public apprised of the progress in the rebuilding effort and launching special events leading up to the summer season.
“To reach and educate beach-goers, family vacationers and New Jerseyans, STTS created and implemented on-the-ground events that piqued traditional media, as well as social and digital arms,” said campaign spokesperson Shannon Eis. “To execute the consumer campaign, the STTS team regularly met with municipalities, Chambers of Commerce, business owners, community members and consumers to gauge recovery efforts.”
The image presented by the STTS campaign was that of a feisty New Jersey “can do” spirit that meshed perfectly with the celebrity governor’s own blunt talking style. The all-out effort included such celebrities as President Obama, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi and the governor himself. And if Great Britain’s Prince William looked just a little bit uncomfortable playing a traditional boardwalk ring toss game in front of dozens of cameras during a tour by the governor, that was just part of the highly publicized fun.
The campaign and its distinctive theme song were difficult to escape either online or on traditional media. It was supplemented with news reports, complemented by tweets, Instagram photos and Facebook postings.
“The promotion worked in our favor,” said New Jersey Amusement Association’s Kimberle Samarelli. “Without it, the 2013 season would have been worse off. We’re looking at another campaign for 2014, but starting earlier in the season.”
Even nature seemed to help out. At Jenkinson’s Aquarium a baby penguin was hatched just prior to the opening of the season and instantly became a Jersey Shore star. Because of the STTS campaign, the penguin hatching secured a spot on the Today Show, reported Jenkinson’s Toby Wolf. “That gave us a lot of exposure and interest in the aquarium, and it was our first hatching since 2006,” she said.
Arcade operators along the boardwalk, along with other businesses, reaped the benefits of the campaign. “The promotions Christie and his team put together were incredible,” said Steve Whalen of Lucky Leo’s (Seaside Heights). “It was like Seaside was in the news on a daily basis.”
Coming Back From The Storm
CARLSTADT, NJ -- After Sandy, there was more to rebuilding than simply repairing buildings. Replacing equipment lost to the storm represented another major challenge. Although there was little doubt that operators along the Jersey Shore were going to rebuild, whether or not they could accomplish the task in time for the summer season was far from certain. Some arcades were completely wiped out and needed to completely restock their game selections.
“When the storm first hit our major concern was our customers’ well being,” said Joe Ingui, Betson Enterprises’ director of sales. “Many of our customers were displaced from their homes, as were some our own employees. We were trying to work remotely. We did the best we could with the management team. We spoke to as many people as we could right after the storm. Many of our customers were in the same shape as we were – no power. They had businesses they couldn’t access.”
What followed was a careful process of assessing the damage and making sure the seaside locations would make the target date for opening on the all-important Memorial Day weekend in May. This included a careful evaluation of games that had been underwater for possible refurbishing. While Betson did evaluate some of these games, most were a total loss because of the salt water.
“Many of the customers dusted themselves off and got up again,” Ingui said. “And manufacturers were willing to work with us. We created special payment plans with low-interest deals for one or two seasons.”
As the rebuilding process progressed, games began flowing south. “We ran almost two or three trucks per week down to these seasonal locations in the month of May,” Ingui recalled. “The whole story is getting open for Memorial Day. We fought hard to make that target date. And we as an industry rebounded extremely well. We coped well and we’re hopeful for next year.”