Business Beat: End Of Cruise Ship Season Raises Annual Questions ..

By Carol McCracken

While many voters considered Election Day earlier this week the beginning of a new era in politics, for Comercial Street businesses along the Portland waterfront, the day had a different meaning. It was the end of the current cruise ship season and the $$$ these passengers bring wth them to local merchants.

The cruise ship season ended with a whimper rather than a bang though. It ended with the brief (7 hour) visit of the Royal Princess,  carrying only 710 passengers. The ship was on its return trip up the Canadian coastline. The Royal Princess is part of the Carnival Corporation fleet of ships that calls Portland a port.

Trying to distract MHN from the on-going elections, it conducted its own unscientific survey with a wide margin of error (more than 3% for certain) along Commercial Street. The question to a number of the businesses was: “When cruise ships arrive in port, do you see an increase in your sales?” The trend was a definitive “yes“: from those sampled by the MHN. Those sampled were retailers selling small items that presumably can be easily packed away in luggage – definitely a bias of MHN – making the sampling tainted to begin with. No furniture stores or the like were included in the survey.

The owner of Maine’s Pantry (The Flavor of Maine) said in a telephone conversation that her business does indeed experience a surge in sales when the cruise ships are in port. Another significant surge in income Elena Morrow-Spitzer, owner of Maine’s Pantry, said comes from the tourists who visit the area in buses. There are “lots” of buses who visit her store weekly during the summertime. Perhaps part of the reason could be related to the fact that tour buses park very close to her store. Location, location, location? Elena said that she has had as many as 8 buses arrive in one day – not often – but it has happened to her.

Unfortunately, there is no system in place to forewarn Elena and her employees of the arrival of buses that can fill up her floor space very quickly. (Unlike cruise ships, buses do not have to pay fees, etc. to enter the city.) So, Elena took the matter into her own hands by asking tour bus leaders when she sees them her in store, to give her advance notice as to when they will next be bringing a bus onto Comercial Street and hopefully her sweet store. They usually cooperate. This gives her the advantage of scheduling her sales staff appropriately and allows her to be stocked for the buying patterns of bus and cruise ship tourists which are different from each other, said Elena.

The “small items” retail businesses that formed the core of the MHN survey vary in cost as well – from inexpensive souvenirs to high end jewelry and decorative items. (Some from the latter categories come from out of state). Retail cost per item did not appear to be a factor in this unscientific survey! 

It’s true that  cruise ship passengers take prearranged bus trips to Freeport,  Kennebunk, lighthouses and other places that cut into their retail business. But according to Nicole Clegg, director of communications for Portland, less than half of cruise ship passengers take this bus trips.  About half of them are back in town by mid-day.  And some of the bus tours do include the Portland downtown area in the tour. It’s been suggested that  building an aquarium on Commercial Street would reduce the number of tourists who leave the Commercial Street corridor for out-of-town destinations for the entire day.

This year thirty-one  cruise ships visited Portland  carrying about 45,172 passengers. To date, thirty-eight cruise ships have been scheduled for 2009 with about 70,840 passengers anticipated on them. That’s an increase of 56% which sets a new record for passenger ships in Portland along Commercial Street. Apparently there is no information MHN could find as to how many bus tourists entered the Commerical Street area in the 2008 season nor how many are expected next year either.

One observation MHN noted is that if your business is tourist dependent,  the small items are a better risk than larger items. Especially when relying on bus business with even less storage space with them.

There is no simple yes or no answer it’s clear because there are so many variables to be factored into such a survey.  It’s not black and white.