“Business is down, there is no question about it,” said Brian Brady, the design director of Southampton-based Brady Design Inc., a high-end architecture and interior design company.
This time of year, Mr. Brady is usually finishing up a few building projects so that his wealthy clients can move into their new homes by Memorial Day, but 2009 has been different; he doesn’t have a single Hamptons project in the works, and the other part of his business—selling interior design wares to other designers—is also scuffling along.
“We are trying to brainstorm on how to attract people to the store,” Mr. Brady said. Among the immediate plans is a redesign of the company Web site. If all else fails and business stays slow, Mr. Brady and his partner, Franco Biscardi, plan on giving up their lease in December and relocating down the street to a commercial space they own.
Much has been made in the last couple of weeks about the tanking Hamptons housing market—sales tumbled annually in the first quarter of 2009 by 49.8 percent, according to Douglas Elliman and Miller Samuel, a slide similar to Manhattan’s—but that housing slump has tentacles: local retail and services, from concierges to restaurants to caterers to …
… Charities. Christopher Robbins is the vice president of Robbins Wolf, the high-end event-planning company that puts together the Hamptons Classic Horse Show; he first noticed a slowdown in the charity circuit last year, before the game-changing collapse of Lehman Brothers on Sept. 15.
“Last summer, around Memorial Day, the writing was on the wall,” Mr. Robbins said. “What we saw was that the locally based charities like the Southampton Hospital and the horse show did well, but the non-local charities didn’t end up getting the R.S.V.P. lists that they wanted.”
Mr. Robbins expects more of the same this season. Indeed, the summer of 2009 may very well become a financial demarcation for the posher parts of the East End, as much an infamous time stamp as September 2008 has become for Manhattan.
I think part of it is that people are doing a little soul-searching and realizing that they don’t need to be drinking $1,000 bottles from Bordeaux to impress their friends. —David Page of Shinn Estate Vineyards
Still, there will be enough weddings, birthdays and dinner parties to keep Mr. Robbins’ company busy. “I don’t think this summer is going to be terrible; wealthy people entertain and that is not going to stop,” he said. A dinner party might become a cocktail party; and charity organizations will scrimp where they can and lower ticket prices for their events.
“People are going to be discriminating with where they spend their disposable income,” William McGintee, East Hampton’s town supervisor, said. Mr. McGintee spent 25 years in the local police department before becoming supervisor six years ago, and although he still has faith in the timeless appeal of local beaches and their ability to draw summer crowds, he’s worried that some business might struggle. “My biggest concern is the area of restaurants, that people might make dinner at home and barbecue more often,” he said.
IN THE END, THE simple proximity of the East End to the very Manhattan that helped bring down its housing market may be what buoys it in the recession.
David Page and Barbara Shinn own a winery in Mattituck, one of many small hamlets in the North Fork. “The recession is driving people to us, and it seems weird to say this, but this economy seems to be a boon to our business,” Mr. Page said. The couple have been growing grapes since 1998 at Shinn Estate Vineyards, and according to Mr. Page, their overall business is up some 25 percent from last year.
Traffic at the farmhouse bed-and-breakfast, which is the big-ticket item on the vineyard—costing as much as $325 a night—is down, but wholesale bottle sales to wine and liquor stores are up nearly 30 percent, and sales in the tasting room are up by 25 percent.
They grow mostly Merlot-based blends on the 22 acres, and sell wines ranging in price from $15 a bottle to $43 a bottle. In a sign of the times, Mr. Page says that they are selling less to restaurants, who may be finding their diners are less receptive to their in-house bottle markups. According to him, the steady tasting-room crowds aren’t exclusive to just Shinn Estates.
“I think part of it is that people are doing a little soul-searching and realizing that they don’t need to be drinking $1,000 bottles from Bordeaux to impress their friends,” he said. “Instead, it might interest them to drink a $20 Merlot from a farmer they know.”
Andrew Zarrow, president of the charter jet company V1 Jets, has seen a change in the passengers on his company’s seaplane ride from Manhattan’s Skyport Marina off 23rd Street out to the Hamptons. Back in the glory days, the planes were filled with dime-a-dozen hedge-funders. Nowadays, the weekend warriors have been replaced, both by well-off homeowners and other nine-to-fivers who are actually making money and could still afford a $495 one-way ticket.
And for every rider lost to the vagaries of a busted economy, Mr. Zarrow says that they pick up a cost-conscious traveler downgrading from more expensive modes of transport. Compared to a New York–East Hampton helicopter ride, which can cost considerably more, a ride in Mr. Zarrow’s amphibious airplane is a downright bargain. Mr. Zarrow is not planning on lowering prices this year.
There will be a summer in the Hamptons in 2009. The established beach and social scene will still draw its usual crowd, and Manhattan’s wealthier denizens will spend their money, even though they may not be quite as well-off as they were, say, last year. “I think it’s going to be a good summer,” Mr. McGintee, the East Hampton supervisor, said, “but I think it’s going to be a different summer.”