Labor Day. Officially, this is the point at which the country celebrates the social and economic achievements of American workers. Few, if any of us, think of it that way. For most of us, especially in our tourism-dominated shore community, Labor Day is the official end of the summer season and the start of what we have come to call the shoulder season.
No longer do the island communities
“roll up the sidewalks” come Labor Day Monday evening.
Part of why Labor Day became the symbol for the end of summer is that it marked the start of the school year, as parents turn their attention to getting children ready for the new year at school, a year for most of those students that marked advancement to a new grade. Now, of course, school calendars are more fluid, with many starting the new year in August. Still, Labor Day is a point of transition.
Those of us who are old enough remember the days when the tourism economy in Cape May County went into slow gear after Labor Day. Decades back, one used to hear the expression that at the close of Labor Day, the island communities would “roll up the sidewalks” as they emptied out. Events like the annual North Wildwood Irish Festival, the now defunct Roar to the Shore, or the Firemen’s Convention in Wildwood kept things lively for a short period into the fall.
What we began calling the shoulder season kept expanding, as tourism options that went beyond the beaches increased. A recent economic impact study conducted by Cape May MAC showed that this one nonprofit runs over 600 tours, events, and things to do in and around Cape May from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.
From world-famous birding to ecotourism excursions, and from wineries to historic sites to cultural events, the activities that occur between Labor Day and Memorial Day contribute significantly to the $7.5 billion in direct tourism expenditures.
The county tourism statistics announced in June showed double-digit percentage increases every month from November 2022 to March 2023. At the same tourism conference, the county noted that the camping community also grew in the offseason, with more than a third of property managers expanding their calendars.
The pandemic also helped Labor Day lose some of its status as an end point for visitors when it sparked a real estate frenzy for second homes in the county. Remote options for work gave more flexibility to second homeowners who could stay in residence at the shore longer into the fall. Statistics on water usage told a tale of shore towns, with homes occupied well into the fall months and used more frequently throughout the year.
Now, the length of the “off” season has continued to shrink. At best, now it runs from New Year’s to around Valentine’s Day. Even there, we see activity. While January and February are the slowest months in terms of visitors to the county, year-to-year growth of visitors in those months is evident.
The county is less and less a summer-only destination bounded by Memorial Day at one end and Labor Day at the other.
Memorial Day remains more tied in the public consciousness to sand and beaches. Towns across the county hold ceremonies to “unlock” the beaches for summer enjoyment, but Labor Day is less an end point and now more a demarcation line, a transition point when visitors look to all of the things the county has to offer that go beyond the beaches.
Labor Day was a creation of the labor movement in late-nineteenth century industrializing America. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed legislation that made Labor Day the first Monday in September. It began as a way to repair the relationship with American workers following a period of intense labor unrest. Some towns still hold parades, but the original concept behind the day has long been lost for most Americans.
We still experience crowds and a busy weekend associated with Labor Day at the shore, but we can no longer see Labor Day as anything other than another touch point for the county’s growth as a year-round destination.
It is a change we should embrace and work hard to extend.
From the Bible: “The wise are cautious and avoid danger; fools plunge ahead with reckless confidence.” Proverbs 14:16