Businesses feel customers' fears

Restaurants, museums and stores see caution affecting their profits

October 16, 2002|By Robert Little and Stacey Hirsh | Robert Little and Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Fear and wariness about the Washington-area sniper are slowly creeping into the books of some local businesses and attractions as would-be customers - particularly children - stay inside or stay home.

Tour bus companies say business is down because schools and corporate groups are canceling outings near Washington or anywhere else perceived as within the sniper's range. Local attractions such as the Maryland Science Center, normally teeming with field-trippers, are uncharacteristically calm.

Security companies, meanwhile, say business is up, as merchants and schools try to restore a sense of safety.

And one gas station owner reports simply that business has changed - people get more fill-ups than normal, but some drive away when they see that no other cars are around.

"People are very nervous," said Christine Rowett, a Science Center spokeswoman. "And who can blame them?"

The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association reports no noticeable decline in tourism and travel to the area in recent weeks as a rifle-wielding killer stalked the communities in and around Washington.

The nation's capital is hardly shuttered with fear. About 225,000 people crowded Pennsylvania Avenue at the Taste of DC food festival last weekend, said Victoria Isley, vice president of marketing and communications for the Washington Convention and Tourism Corp.

But a sampling of restaurants, tourist attractions and related businesses suggests that the shootings have spawned apprehension, most noticeably concerning schoolchildren whose class outings have been postponed or scrapped.

`Everyone is canceling'

"Put it this way: We used to be in the business of school trips, but everyone is canceling now," said Connie Buck, charter manager for Eyre Tour & Travel, a bus company in Glenelg. "It's had a major effect. Everyone is canceling everything."

Officials at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which is host to about 60 school trips in an average fall week, say they get two or three cancellations a day and expect business to drop about 10 percent. The Maryland Science Center has had 11 class cancellations, some for groups of 100 students or more.

The financial impact is slight because the aquarium and science center don't charge students for admission, and most expect the canceled tours to be rebooked once the sniper is caught. But things feel different.

"It affects the energy of the place," Rowett said. "It's normally filled with kids, learning and having fun, and right now it's not. Even more significant, though, is that no one is calling to schedule trips for November and December. It's hurting us."

`Habits have changed'

This is when the Trattoria Sorrento, a Bethesda restaurant, typically does its best business, said chef and part-owner Giovanni De Simone. But business was off last week, and he blames consumers' caution.

"You go outside, and there are 200 restaurants, so there are a lot of choices to go and eat, but you just don't see as many people walking around as you normally would," De Simone said.

At the Executive Getty gas station and repair shop in Rockville, manager Dave Healander said more customers are filling their tanks instead of getting small amounts, presumably so they don't have to stop as often.

"You can see their habits have changed," Healander said. "I do see a lot more people sitting in their cars or sitting closer to the pump. There are times when, if there's no customers in the driveway at all, a customer might drive through and not stop only because it's so empty."

While there are few signs of economic calamity, some businesses seem to be benefiting.

Peapod, the arm of Giant Food Inc. where customers order groceries online for delivery, has seen a "significant increase" in business in the Washington area, said Barry Scher, Giant's vice president of public affairs. He said shoppers have also been buying larger packages of food and more prepared foods from the deli department, which Giant attributes to fear of standing in line outside restaurants.

Sheraina Parks, director of contracting for Metropolitan Protective Services Inc. in Hyattsville, said four private schools in the Bowie area hired new security guards after a 13-year-old was shot Oct. 7 at Benjamin Tasker Middle School.

"Basically they're patrolling in vehicles, riding around the area watching for suspicious activity," Parks said. "At one school the guards actually sit at the playground with the children. The schools feel like they need an increased level of security. I guess a lot of people do."

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