With few exceptions this summer, diners daily filled the booths overlooking Coast Highway from Nick’s Laguna Beach restaurant, front row seats to the hustle and bustle of the downtown beach scene. “This was by far our busiest year,” since opening five years ago, said Brian Harrington, managing partner with Irvine-based Nickco Hospitality LLC, with receipts up 17 percent.
Anecdotal reports across town yield upbeat economic indicators from tourist-serving merchants – from hotels to art festivals – experiencing moderately better business than last summer, and in some cases quite a lot better. Official sales tax receipts, though, won’t be available for months.
For starters, 2 percent more riders, an estimated 593,893, boarded free trolleys this summer, compared to last year and that seemed to set the pace for improved sales across the town.
“We had a fantastic summer,” agreed Chris Keller, owner of the hotel La Casa del Camino as well as restaurants K’ya Bistro, the Rooftop Lounge and House of Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer. All did a little better than the previous summer, but the hotel had its best season since Keller and his partner took it over in 2002, probably up about 15 percent, he said.
Peggy Trott, general manager of the Inn at Laguna Beach, also reported a “good season,” with guest stays averaging as much as three days, compared to the industry average of 1.87 days. With guests staying longer, they are spending more money in town, she said.
This seemed to be the case for Laguna Surf and Sport in the HIP district, whose manager, Jason Watson, said more tourists perused their racks this year, and that sales were consequently “a little better.” He attributed the uptick to people flocking to town for “a good time on the beach,” a scenario aided by good weather from April through most of July that helped to keep the visitors coming, building momentum like a ship under sail that even the gray days in August couldn’t halt.
Apparently beachgoers and visitors relished a good read, especially on those gray days, since Laguna Beach Books, also experienced steady traffic, according to owner Jane Hanauer. She said sales in June matched those of last year, while July sales rose a little and August sales exceeded last year’s by 8 percent.
Both the Sawdust Art Festival and the Festival of Arts reported slight increases in admission ticket sales over last summer, and, as usual, the “Pageant of the Masters” sold out its entire run.
Though neither festival keeps track of sales figures by individual artists, marketing director Sharbie Higuchi said the Festival of Arts’ fine arts booth, which handles transactions for artists when they are absent from their booths, reported their best year since 2007.
Laguna Beach artist David Milton, whose watercolor subjects favor vintage neon signs, said sales of his original works at the Festival, going for up to $12,000, were “significantly” better than last year. At the Sawdust, however, sales of both originals and prints rose only slightly, with prints ranging from $35 for small matted works to $1,500 for large framed reproductions.
Last summer, Milton said some of his loyal collectors “went off the radar.” Faithful followers returned this summer and made purchases, as did several new customers. Even so, Milton attributes some of his success to his own effort to log more hours, particularly in the evening in his Festival booth. Collectors appreciate the personal attention, he said.
For the past three years, Milton made a concession to tighter wallets by adding smaller, unframed originals to his repertoire at a lower price point of about $295. This year that effort “paid off immensely,” he said.
Meanwhile, landscape and portrait artist Michael Hallinan, a veteran Sawdust exhibitor, saw a whopping 25 percent increase in sales over summer’s nine-week season. Hallinan, too, observed a shift by buyers. Where sales of originals, ranging from $650 to $3,000, habitually accounted for the bulk of his income, for the first time his prints, priced from $50 to $150 unframed, came out ahead. He chalked the change to a willing but restrained clientele. “Everybody was coming to town with $100 to spend,” he said.
In any case, Hallinan observed that success takes different forms. This summer, for example, the acrylic portraits that bring him a steady stream of commissions also caught the eye of an art book publisher who asked him to write a method book about figurative painting in acrylic. The artist-cum-author has already received an advance based on the rough outline.