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Hotels help shops survive Vero summer

With summer nearly half over, it seems increasingly clear that most island businesses – despite a daunting economy – are going to make it through their annual slow season, with some reporting that they are doing as well as, if not better than, they were a year ago.

According to numerous owners of small businesses, from those struggling to make ends meet to the most successful, the key to this year has been a combination of faithful local customers and an increase in the number of tourists staying at the new beachside hotels, Vero Beach Hotel & Spa and Costa d’Este.

This is the first full summer that the two new Ocean Drive hotels have been in full operation, offering a variety of promotions to draw visitors, and Georgia Irish, manager of the beachside home office of Marine Bank & Trust, says traffic from the hotels is aiding many retail shop owners who bank with Marine.

“For many of them, they’re up over last year,” said Irish. “Some of their sales are even up 20% over the past year.”

To Penny Chandler, president of the Indian River Chamber of Commerce, the strong local support for beachside businesses comes as no surprise.

“Everyone seems to understand the importance of doing business locally, with businesses giving each other referrals- particularly in this economy,” says Chandler. “I know we get people who call who want to support local businesses.”

Mark Terheggen, or the “MT’ of the Chophouse which made its debut this past February, said he had planned on closing up shop on Sundays during the summer— anticipating a slower pace. But instead, he has kept it open to keep up with demand.

Despite relatively high prices, “we’re way above our predictions,” Terheggen said.

The Pearl, which is offering a variety of attractively priced menus, reports business has been much “quieter” than last summer.

To keep costs down, co-owner Gloria Gilbert says they have closed the main dining room temporarily. What keeps the business viable, she adds, is the hard-core support of loyal locals.

Kevin Perucchini, a manager of Ti Amo Sempre, an Italian restaurant next door to the Chophouse, concurs.

“Seventy to eighty percent of our business is from locals,” says Perucchini. However, the numbers coming to dinner still lag significantly behind last summer.

“This June was the lowest in sales in 5 years,” Perucchini says, and he attributes the poor numbers to the current recession.

“Whereas, say, our clients from John’s Island used to eat out four times a week . . . now, they’re eating out once a week at a place like ours, and another night or two at more affordable places, like Bobby’s.”

Indeed, two places that seem to be thriving this summer are less expensive local favorites Bobby’s and Mulligans.

According to Joe Kazan, co-owner of Bobby’s, business is “booming.” He attributes his success to loyal locals—many of whom he says “hide” during the high season, and reappear during the summer when it’s “easier to get a table.”

George Hart, owner of Mulligans, says business is up approximately 5 percent compared to last summer.

Like Kazan and Hart, Mary Lavin, owner of “Twirl,” a children’s clothing store whose sales numbers are about the same as last summer, says without the support of locals, she does not think her store would still be open in the face of stepped-up competition from department stores and on line stores.

“Awareness of buying local and how it impacts us all — well, let’s just say we have the support of the local community,” says Lavin.

While grateful for her loyal local customers, Lavin also notes that they have become much more discerning — and bold.

“People will come in and say, ‘I saw that same thing on some website at a lower price; what can you do for me?’” Between the economy and tough competition, she says she was forced to put her goods on sale more than a month earlier than normal.

Around the corner from “Twirl” is “Very Fitting,” a boutique that sells lingerie and linens. According to one of its owners, Shelagh McCracken, who grew up in Vero, business has been steady this summer.

“We’re grateful,” she said. “We’re doing fine.”

McCracken and her sister and coowner, Erin Metz, attribute a significant amount of their sales this summer due to hotel guests staying at Vero Beach Hotel & Spa and Costa d’Este.

“We see a lot of South Floridians,” says McCracken.

“The hotel brings in a new customer every few days, every week that we don’t normally have,” added Metz.

Johanna Bayley, Director of Sales and Marketing at Vero Beach Hotel & Spa, whose occupancy — with the help of some amazing offers— is up 30 percent compared to last summer, says that having great local restaurants to recommend is a plus for the hotels.

“It’s so nice that we can call the Chophouse or another great restaurant and say ‘we have a party of five’ and they can help us, even at the last minute. And they refer business back to us, so it works both ways.”

Monica Smiley, director of sales for Costa d’Este and also the chairman of the board of tourism for Indian River County, says that promoting local restaurants and businesses ultimately helps the hotel’s business.

“We know that when we introduce people to our wonderful community for the first time—we know it’s all about selling destination—including eco-tourism, the arts, the feeling of Florida of yesteryear.

“They’ll come back again and again, and as the economy improves, these will be loyal customers.”

Paul Castraberti of the Lemon Tree, a reasonably priced eatery on Ocean Drive whose sales are up an incredible 25 percent compared to last summer, attributes his success this summer to the business Hotel Costa d’Este and Vero Beach Resort and Spa have sent.

Castraberti’s success is particularly significant because despite not serving dinner during the summer to keep costs down, he says he is still a quarter percentage ahead of last summer—primarily due to increased numbers at breakfast, where his sales numbers have nearly doubled.

“The doormen at the hotels send everyone here for breakfast,” says Castraberti. “It’s really a team effort here in Vero.”