Friday October 16, 2009

Fishing Brings Profit to Businesses. Profile of Seven Local Businesses

October is the busiest month for those catering to anglers
By Nate McDonald

    Oswego County Business has selected seven local businesses that are significantly impacted by the county's tourism industry. They are the RiverHouse Restaurant, Lucky Dutchman Charters, Catfish Creek, Fat Nancy's, The Broadwell Companies (EconoLodge, Best Western hotels), K&G Sport Fishing Charters and Lodge and Tinker Tavern Lodge & Guide Service 
    RiverHouse Restaurant, Pulaski 

    'Fishing really impact us,” owner says 

    The RiverHouse Restaurant has a long history of offering hospitality to the Pulaski community and visiting fishermen going back to the 19th century.

    Its latest reincarnation was in 2007 by Frank Catanzarite. It offers a variety of menu items and drinks.

    “I just felt we needed something nice here in Pulaski. Since then, other restaurants have opened up. When I first started putting this together we had nothing here. I work at Nine Mile Point and I still do. It keeps me going,” he said.

    While his focus is on catering to the local clientèle, he is well aware of the role the fishing season plays in his revenues.

    “Fishing has a really huge impact for us,” he said. “We have a good local following, but the fishing really does a lot for us.”

    He said his business sees a bit of a boom in April as fishermen are lured up by steelhead trout and mid-August to October marks the busiest season as the ranks of his patrons are swelled by salmon fishermen.

    “We have a new building so we're talking quite a bit of overhead right now. If we didn't have that overhead, I think we could survive without the fishing season,” Catanzarite explained. “Salmon season in particular gives us a big boost.”

    It is no understatement when he describes the salmon season as a big boost. Catanzarite reported that in the off-season, anywhere from 100 to 130 dinners are served on a typical Friday or Saturday night. Salmon season sees the number of dinners served soar to between 160 and 200.

    He said the RiverHouse Restaurant does not make any special changes to the menu for the influx of fishermen, as he is primarily focused on serving the local base. The restaurant does extend its hours of operation to accommodate the fishing season.

    “We increase our hours and work a little more, but other than that I really want to cater to the local people. They're here year around and they're the ones that keep me going,” Catanzarite said.

    He did note a difference in the ordering preferences between his local customers and visiting fishermen.

    “It's pretty wide open. We do a lot of pasta dishes, seafood, beef, chicken--it all sells pretty good. A lot of times it depends on the time of year,” he said. “In the fall you see a lot of beef with the fishermen. A lot of guys come in and get the prime rib or other steaks. They like to eat. The rest of the year, we sell a lot of seafood and haddock is a huge seller. It's kind of fun to see trends like that.” 

    Lucky Dutchman Charters, Pulaski 

    Many visitors from neighboring states 

    Captain Bill Vanwormer of Pulaski has been operating his charter business since 1987, and constructed a lodge in 1990 to provide housing to his customers while they are visiting. He deeply enjoys his business and remains profitable, but those feelings are tempered by the challenges facing the industry.

    Chief among those challenges are rapidly inflating fuel prices that generally tend to be higher than gasoline prices for automobiles.

    “I feel good and enjoy the fishing, but it's kind of scary. I'm glad I'm not 30 years old and trying to start a business to support my family,” Vanwormer said. “The only way young people do it is with drift boating in the winter, because it doesn't cost anything in fuel. It's all profit.”

    Shorter seasons have also made life more difficult, condensing the season into a little over a month of frenzied activity before petering out, rather than a sustained, seasonal rush.

    “In Pulaski, it's all condensed into four weeks. It used to be eight weeks or even 10 weeks. Now the salmon season is down to around four to six at the most. The season is all boom or bust,” he said.

    He reported that he draws the majority of his customers from surrounding regions and states, such as the Catskills, Albany, Connecticut, Massachusetts and particularly northeast Pennsylvania, and many of them have been his customers for years.

    “I've been doing this since 1987 and I have customers who have been fishing with me since I've started. It's been 10 years since I've even done any advertising,” Vanwormer said.

    In his experience, Vanwormer said tourism dollars drawn by the fishing industry are not as significant as is believed. Rather than coming to the county and seeing other attractions, he observes that most patrons buy the necessities required to fish and largely stay in their rooms.

    “I have a six-bedroom lodge. When my customers come in, most of them spend the night, and they'll buy gas and oil and maybe some groceries. As far as doing the tourist thing, where the wife and kids go to Fort Ontario and all that--I see very little of that,” he explained. “They're not tourists; they're fishermen.”

    He is also aware of some of the criticisms that residents harbor, such as parking, overcrowding and trespassing. “The trouble with our industry is if you're not in it, you don't like it because people park in the way and make long lines,” he said.

    Vanwormer said more could be done to promote the industry in the area. A decade ago, he reported that it would not be uncommon to reserve roughly 40 trips at a three-day trade show. Now, though, most charter businesses would be thrilled to book eight or nine trips at the same shows.

    “Maybe we made it too easy and people don't appreciate the fishing. If you want to catch fresh water fish you either come to the Great Lakes or you have to go to the West Coast and spend thousands of dollars,” he said. “Our population base within six hours is millions of dollars in tourism dollars waiting to be reached. I can't imagine why there isn't a steady stream of people coming here to fish.”

    While he admits that he doesn't have the answers to many of these problems, he does feel that greater organization is needed in promoting the area. He described the local efforts as largely “preaching to the choir.”

    “We don't have projects going on. We really should have some projects where we can figure out how to increase the tourism. We should get everyone involved and have a brainstorm session,” he said. “Someday I'd like to sell my business and my lodge but right now, it's not a viable.” 

    Catfish Creek, New Haven 

    “The fishing has been better than most years,” owner says 

    Cheryl and Wally Kimmel purchased Catfish Creek in New Haven in 2000. They offer a wide variety of services, all closely related to the fishing industry such as docking and launching facilities, fish cleaning stations, lodging, charter services, boat rentals and on-site sales of fishing licenses and supplies.

    While business is not matching the heyday levels of the 1980's, business has been picking up, although they have been affected by the poor state of the economy like nearly every other industry. Rather than fuel more local vacations and trips, the economy seems to have everyone tightening their belts.

    “I wish it could come back to the levels of the 1980's, but I don't think it's going to happen. The economy has really affected us the past couple of years. It's definitely hurting us,” Cheryl Kimmel said. “We don't get many local people at all lately.”

    One area the economy has little effect on is the actual fishing. The Kimmels provided further credence to the Oswego County fishing reports.

    “The fishing has been better than most years. It seems like it's been getting better every year for the past few years, too,” she said. “We're always subject to DEC stocking, though. We're at their mercy.”

    Of course, salmon season, which runs from mid-August through the end of October, marks the busiest period of the year. It's not surprising, then, that the Kimmels feel the biggest draw to the county's fishing is the sheer size of the catches.

    “They don't have this sized fish at other places. The bigger the body of water, the bigger the fish. The salmon are the biggest draw for just that reason,” Cheryl Kimmel explained.

    The economy isn't the only issue keeping potential anglers at bay, however. Illnesses afflicting fish populations have also contributed, and to a lesser extent, invasive species. Kimmel stated that she did not think invasive species were nearly as destructive as disease, however.

    “We were doing great with bass until they started contracting the VHS disease. That scared a lot of people off. I haven't had many bass people up this year because of it,” she said. “The invasive species have people worried about it, but nature takes care of itself, and people come back and people learn different ways of fishing. For instance, the water is clearer now so it takes a little bit more of a strategy.”

    The Kimmels have turned to increased promotional activities to generate business. While she said it seemed as if the county's efforts have tapered off in recent years, Cheryl Kimmel said she was grateful for any help.

    “Every bit helps. I think the county's ads have fallen off a bit in the past couple years. I used to be able find tourism catalogs for Oswego County, but I haven't been seeing them at the different (trade) shows we go to,” she said. “I still pay my 3 percent bed tax. I don't mind paying it if it helps development, though.”

    They have also done a number of things to increase awareness of the services they offer, such as updating their Web site and placing brochures at a New York state information center bordering Pennsylvania. The Internet has become a vital resource as more anglers utilize the Web to research potential fishing trips.

    “People go to the Internet first to do research to see what's out there. Having a good Web site is key. Being accessible and being one of the first results on the first page for a search engine is really helpful,” Cheryl Kimmel said. “I'm paying for someone to see my name on the first page. The key words are 'Oswego County Fishing.' It has definitely had an effect on our business.” 

    Fat Nancy's, Pulaski 

    Business during salmon season increases by 50 percent 

    Fat Nancy's is a bait and tackle shop located in Pulaski. Opened in 1991, they sell a wide variety of products for fishermen, including licenses. Fat Nancy's is a large store and has embraced online retailing as a means to expand the services offered to their customers.

    Dave Falato, who works in sales and as a guide at Fat Nancy's, said the downturn the economy has taken has benefited business at Fat Nancy's. As people look for ways to tighten their belts, they still indulge in a family vacation or personal recreation.

    “There are a lot more people coming up. I think it's got a lot to do with the economy. Guys are spending their money coming up here rather than taking the family to Disney World for a few thousand dollars a week,” he said.

    Falato reported that the overwhelming majority of Fat Nancy's patrons are from out of state. He estimated that 75 percent of Fat Nancy's customers come from outside of New York state. “A lot of that has to do with the Internet. It's a lot of repeat business, too,” he said.

    Dave Schwalm, store manager at Fat Nancy's, spoke of the huge impact the fishing industry has on their business. He said during the peak of salmon season, business at Fat Nancy's increases by roughly 50 percent. The fishing industry's effects are not limited to businesses directly involved with the industry, either. It provides for far-reaching economic benefits in many areas of the local economy as well.

    “I would say the fishing season impacts everything in Oswego County, not in only our store but the state parks, grocery stores and Oswego itself just by bringing in extra tourists,” Schwalm said. “The people of Oswego County don't realize how big the fishing industry is here.”

    While the recession has had a positive effect in keeping vacationers closer to home, it also keeps those same customers refraining from making as many repeat trips as they do when times are good.

    “What's happening is guys who were coming up 10 to 15 times a year are cutting their trips in half to save them money. I'm sure it affects everything in the whole country,” he said. “Now they're only coming up five or six times a year.”

    That is being balanced out by a sector of the fishing market gaining in popularity in the area: ice fishing. According to Schwalm, this off-season sport has been steadily growing in popularity over the past decade.

    “We didn't have nearly as many ice fishing here as we did 10 years ago. It has become a pretty good part of our yearly sales report,” he said. “I've been told several times that we have the second-best fishing in the world. It has a huge impact on the economy and the officials or anybody else cutting back is just taking away the tourists from the county and the money.”

    Falato said he has noticed the county's efforts to promote fishing as a mechanism for tourism, saying, “You're starting to see more and more of the magazines you open have 'Fish in Oswego County' articles and ads in it. It's definitely made an impact.”

    Schwalm said it's difficult to gauge how out-of-state anglers are finding out about the fishing in Oswego County, but he said the county is doing the best it can.

    “I would say the county probably has their hands tied with gas prices driving people away. Charter boat captains at four dollars a gallon aren't going to be able to run as much if it was only two dollars a gallon. The economy affects everything, even fishing, but they're doing the best that they can,” he said. 

    The Broadwell Companies, Oswego 

    October the busiest month of the year 

    The EconoLodge and Suites Riverfront, along with Best Western Captain's Quarters, are riverfront accommodations on the east side of the city of Oswego. The EconoLodge opened for business in 1994 while the Best Western Captain's Quarters opened 12 years before that in two different phases. G.S. Steamers opened a few years after the EconoLodge was established.

    Like most businesses affected by the fishing industry, October sees the highest occupancy rates. It is also fueled by industrial business from Novelis and the Nine Mile Point nuclear power plants.

    “In October we sell more rooms than any other month each year. It's bigger than just that, though,” said Shane Broadwell, general manager of the EconoLodge Riverfront Hotel. “We do business with the drift boat fishermen in the river 12 months of the year. Twelve months is a big deal because that's fishing all year. People launch under the bridge here, and people stay in our hotel and walk out the back door.”

    Broadwell's hotel offers an added bonus to visiting anglers thanks to its location right on the Oswego River and at the mouth of Lake Ontario. The drift boat fishing sustains the business through the winter months, considered the off-season for most other kinds of fishing.

    “Our customers fish for the day and they're back in the hotel, eating and drinking in the evening, and they're here every day of the week there are charters,” he said. “The drift boat fishermen are paying to come to town, stay in our properties, eating dinner and spending money in town everyday. That's a big deal. It's the off-season stuff that really helps with the fishing industry more than that peak in October.”

    He has carefully cultivated relationships with charter boat captains, offering them special rates to offer to their customers. They work together to encourage anglers to take advantage of the fishing afforded by Oswego County and generating repeat customers--a large part of both the hotel and charter industries.

    Everyone benefits: Charter boat captains can offer discounted rates to their customers who stay at the EconoLodge year after year, and anglers and their families enjoy accommodations located right on the water near the marinas in the city's downtown area.

    “The EconoLodge has a rate we work out with individual charter captains. Some are better than others. The more rooms they can give, the better rates they get. We do have a flat charter captain rate that I have for charter captains so they can make those relationships,” he explained. “It's a fixed rate program. It's huge. They know what they can put in their brochures to market to people out of town and say, 'Hey, come see Oswego, stay downtown with food and beverage at a guaranteed rate.'”

    While the county's bed tax took in a record-setting revenue in 2008, Broadwell explained that it is not necessarily an indicator of increased tourism.

    “The bed tax dollars are an indicator that covers many factors. In the month of March, the bed tax numbers across the board couldn't be farther than the truth. It was solely because every property was sold out with people for the nuclear power plants,” he said.

    Like nearly every other industry both locally and nationally, the recession has taken its toll, according to Broadwell, making the fishing industry all the more important for the EconoLodge. 

    K&G Sport Fishing Charters and Lodge, Oswego  

    'All sectors [of the economy] benefit from it,” owner says 

    Greg Gehrig started K&G Sport Fishing Charters and Lodge after reading an article in “Field & Stream” magazine detailing salmon fishing in Lake Ontario.

    He was employed as a corporate executive for the ITT corporation in Pennsylvania, but after bringing his boat up to the area and fishing he became “hooked.”

    He identified a need for charter boat services in the area and found the perfect excuse to leave the corporate world behind, starting his business in 1987.

    Gehrig said not only is the fishing industry a prime generator of tourism dollars, but it aids the real estate market and small business growth in the county as well.

    “They come up here, they like the setting, they like the fishing, they stay in cabins for a couple years and bring their boat up. Then all of a sudden they're buying a couple acres of land and building a house on it, and we see that time and time again,” he said. “I can't tell you how many people have bought property up here, and gone into businesses that all started with fishing. I don't know what other industry besides our nuclear power plants generate that much business in real estate sales, and no one seems to even recognize it.”

    That's not to downplay the impact tourism has in Oswego County, either. Gehrig said he believes most economic impact studies underestimate the revenues visiting anglers generate in the community.

    “All of these people go out to eat, go to the grocery stores, buy souvenirs, gasoline, and fishing tackle. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to capture numbers to say this is the impact, but I think those numbers are really underestimated,” he explained.

    The fishing industry also creates another often overlooked benefit to the community as well: marketing and promotion. In the off-season, Gehrig said many charter boat captains and others involved in the business travel all over the region and the country promoting the area and bringing business to a variety of industries in the county.

    “You don't see businesses like a restaurant going outside of Oswego doing marketing to bring people to the area, but all of the charter boat captains do multiple trade shows throughout the Northeast all winter doing nothing but promoting the south shore of Lake Ontario. The charter boat captains are doing this marketing for everyone,” he said.

    While Oswego County and its neighbors are enjoying increasing notoriety for its fishing resources, many locals aren't aware of the world-class fishing opportunities in their back yard. Gehrig said many associate the fishing industry with salmon season, but not many locals take advantage of trophy fishing on Lake Ontario. “It's a totally under-promoted asset for this community,” he said.

    According to Gehrig, the state of New York has dropped the ball in promoting fishing in the area, and is discouraging anglers from traveling to the area. He reported that next season, a non-residential season fishing license will increase from $30 to $70. However, he credits the work of Turner and the county's community development, tourism and planning department with doing all they can to promote the industry and the area.

    “Dave Turner and his people have done a monumental job of bringing the focus back to what's available in Oswego County and the fishing here. He's on a limited budget with limited personnel, though,” Gehrig said.

    “The whole community should be pitching because all sectors [of the economy] benefit from it.”

    He also credits increased cooperation between charter boat captains and the DEC with the superb fishing on Lake Ontario.

    “We used to fight with the DEC from a charter standpoint. Years back we started working together and that coalition of anglers and DEC people working together has produced tremendous fishing even though it's reduced stocking levels a little bit. Again, it's not comparable to any other location,” he said.

    While the state of Michigan and Lake Erie also offer good fishing, Gehrig said Lake Ontario offers fish weighing six to seven pounds heavier and a breadth of species unparalleled in any other location. In addition to the salmon and trout species, there are also unmatched bass, pike, walleye and perch fishing.

    He said 90 percent of his customer base comes from outside of a 100-mile radius, and while it's true that the recession has fueled an increase in more local customers, it is not enough to offset the overall decrease in business caused by the recession.

    “A lot of our customers are people of retirement age, and many of those people's investments have been destroyed,” he said. “People who were sitting very comfortably are having to go back to work, so their free time and free money has dried up. That's what's really hurting business.”

    Partnerships with the EconoLodge and Best Western hotels as well as package deals help attract customers despite the hard times. For example, Gehrig offers an extra night's stay or $30 gift certificates to the restaurant for those purchasing charters and renting lodging. However, he said that skyrocketing fuel prices last year and rising fuel costs this year leave only a slim margin for such offers.

    Gehrig said reaching untapped markets, such as those in Europe and farther west in the United States, could prove to be a boon for the local fishing industry and economy. The problem lies not with the fishing, but with getting the word out about the world-class fishing Lake Ontario offers.

    “You can't touch what's here anywhere else in the world. I'm not a marketing guru, but someone who is could do a tremendous job with this place,” he said. “Despite the recession, people are still fishing. People will always fish. It's one of the greatest pastimes in the world.” 

    Tinker Tavern Lodge & Guide Service, Altmar 

    Owner: 'Area rated in the top-25 fishing destinations by “Field and Stream”' 

    Scott Glazier and his wife, Tanya, originally hail from Massachusetts. After enjoying the fishing in Oswego County for nearly 20 years, he and his wife decided to move to the area and start a lodge and guide service three years ago.

    “We've always loved the area. The fishing is unbelievable. My wife and I left our jobs in Massachusetts to pursue our business up here,” he said.

    Glazier specializes in drift boat trips on the Salmon and Oswego rivers. Despite fears that rising fuel costs and the economic downturn would combine to create a poor climate to start a business, he has been able to turn the recession in his favor.

    “I felt that with the gas prices and economy I thought it would be the wrong time, but I went to the Harrisburg sports show and heard 20 times, 'I used to go to Alaska' or  'I used to go to Canada, but I'm looking for something closer to home.' I think the economy is actually helping us out,” he explained.

    He said he draws most of his customers from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He does a lot of promotional work on the Internet, but word of mouth remains the best way to generate business. He also benefited from the sheer numbers of anglers salmon season brings, as fellow guides send their overflow business to him when he was starting up.

    Glazier also credits the efforts of Oswego County to produce and promote some of the best freshwater fishing in the world.

    “I can't say enough about what the county has done, especially with the fishery. This area has been rated in the top-25 fishing destinations by “Field and Stream” magazine a number of times. They keep reinvesting in it and put money in the fishery,” he said. “I'm really impressed. They're doing a lot of great work, and it's key that they keep doing that.”

    Like many others, he offers package deals and promotions to draw customers in. According to Glazier, guide and lodging services are “a dime a dozen” and competition is fierce.

    “Once you build up a customer base, you get a lot of repeat customers. What is also encouraging is I've been getting a lot of people on their first trips,” he said. “It's great to see the look on peoples' faces after their first trip, and a lot of people will go to the same guide 20 or 30 years if they're happy.”

    While the industry lost a lot of people when the snagging regulations changed in the late 1980's and early 1990's, he said he's encouraging people to learn to fish without snagging.

    “It's a lot of fun. In the Northeast the area is pretty well known. It's really about going to shows and talking to people,” he said while describing what can be done to attract the people lost by the snagging regulations.

    Glazier also said the fishing industry draws a mix of people who come for the tourism destinations in addition to the fishing, and those who come solely to fish and then leave. What he said is most promising for the tourism aspect of the industry, though, is that he increasingly sees the wives and families of anglers going on fishing trips.

    “The biggest increase I can see is that there are more women coming up here to fish than ever before. It's become a family environment,” he said. “My first two cabins were designed with bunk beds to sleep six. The newest building we're making has separate rooms solely for that reason, because of families. It's becoming more and more a family outing. There are a lot more couples going on trips now, too.”

    Glazier identified this development as an opportunity for the community to work together and grow.