Summer vacation is on sale as travelers wait until the last moment

From the white, sandy beaches of Hawaii to the boardwalks of the New Jersey shore, travelers are taking summer vacations that may have been canceled last year because of concerns about the economy. The difference is that many people are waiting until the last minute to make their plans.

Bargains abound for budget-conscious travelers. Indeed, my family and I were able to find a deal at the Jersey shore earlier this month. The picture, though, is not so bright for the hospitality industry, according to officials interviewed by DailyFinance.
"People aren't necessarily sure what their financial situation might be," said Laurie Goldstein, a spokeswoman for Marriott International Inc. (MAR), in an interview. "We have seen this before when the economy has dipped."

Wendy Northcross, head of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, was more blunt, saying "the decision-making time frame has shrunk dramatically." Many vacationers are just hopping in their cars and hoping to find a room after they arrive.

When asked if this drove local business owners crazy, she replied "Oh, definitely!"

For operators of small businesses, this can be especially difficult. They need to be able to forecast their cash flow so they can know if they will be able to meet expenses.

"It makes us more nervous," said Lori Schigara, co-owner of Cape Cod's Bluefish Bed & Breakfast, in an interview.

Travelers are also increasingly trying to haggle with her to find a deal. Though some businesses, including big box retail chains, are giving into these tactics, the three-room inn she owns with her husband can't afford to cut its prices further. Anyone who doesn't like it can take their business elsewhere.

Cape Cod has long been the playground of the rich and famous, thanks in part to the Kennedy family. President Obama and his family are renting a house for the eye-catching -- at least for regular folks -- price of as much as $50,000 per week. The first family's interest in the area couldn't have come at a better time.

Tom Pallas, who oversees the rental business at Martha' s Vineyard Seacoast Properties and Linda R. Bassett Real Estate, told DailyFinance that business is off 25 percent this year and that there are luxurious properties like the one where the Obamas are staying that remain vacant.

International destinations such as Orlando are finding themselves increasingly attractive to local vacationers. According to the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, the average distance a traveler came was down 20 percent in Q4 2008 and 12 percent in Q1 2009. Industry data shows that people are now trying to drive rather than fly when possible.

That's helping Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The resort town, which has seen improvements in occupancy rates, saw the strongest bookings at local hotels since 2005, according to The SunNews, a local newspaper.

Vicki Clark, the president of the Cape May Chamber of Commerce., said her members on the South Jersey shore are seeing some signs of a turnaround though business remains soft. An unusually rainy June scared away day-trippers from Philadelphia and its suburbs.

"It's not the best season on record," she said. "It's not the worst."

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