- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2016

PLEASURE ISLAND, N.C. (AP) - Early-birds are known to flock to breakfast joints, but this winter Kate’s Pancake House had frequent “snowbird” sightings.

That’s owner Kate Weiss’ affectionate term for off-season tourists, who stopped in for s’mores pancakes and Greek omelets in droves. Coupled with the support of loyal locals, a boom this winter let Weiss keep her restaurant open every month but February. In years past, she’s operated on an eight-month cycle.

“I think more and more people are finding the beach here,” Weiss said. “Thanksgiving time, it’s almost like summer that weekend, and then that weekend between Christmas and New Year’s it’s like summer again. … It’s a huge comfort.”

Business owners up and down Pleasure Island had banner winters - largely thanks to tourists following warm weather. But it takes more than a seasonal fluke for a business to reshape its operations as Kate’s has done - tourism officials say the crowds came after a concerted effort to court off-season visitors.

The Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau measures traffic by New Hanover County’s hotel tax collections. The county has an additional 6-percent tax on hotel rooms and short-term rentals, and the CVB tracks the first 3 percent of that.

Countywide, hotel room rentals increased every month from October to February - the most recent month for which numbers are available. Surprising everyone, the biggest jumps came in January and February, which were up 18 percent and 20 percent over 2015, respectively.

“We’ve had a record setting winter,” CVB president Kim Hufham said. “We’re very encouraged to see those types of numbers, especially during our off-season. … We know that that’s the time of the year we have the most potential for growth.”

During the past year, CVB advertising has honed in on travelers more likely to take off-season vacations - millennials, families without children and baby boomers whose children have left the nest. They’ve also targeted in-state travelers, more likely to take a day trip on warm days, and have placed ads with forecast desktop app WeatherBug.

Pleasure Island Chamber of Commerce Director Greg Reynolds said member businesses have reported higher-than-normal traffic.

“We’ve been pushing for the last 10 years the shoulder season,” he said. “We’re seeing a slight upturn in that, . more and more businesses actually trying the weekends and not shutting down for the season.”

At The Veggie Wagon, the wintertime growth inspired owners Max and April Sussman to open a 3,500-square-foot kitchen space at 1117 N. Lake Park Blvd. The expansion will let them offer more prepared foods and ready-to-cook meals.

In Kure Beach at Jack Mackerel’s Island Grill, manager Beverly Lem said the crowds exceeded expectations - even on cool days.

“From Thanksgiving on there was a lot of families that came and stayed, and that was something I’ve never seen of that magnitude,” she said. “We’re happy to have it if it’s the weather or whatever it takes. But we had some cold weekends and we were still busy.”

While Pleasure Island businesses are quick to thank the locals who support them year-round, Reynolds said on an island of 8,500 residents it takes out-of-towners for this type of growth. Between a revitalized Boardwalk, soon-to-open Hampton Inn and plans for a Harris Teeter, he said the area’s tourist draw is only improving.

“More feet on the ground, more heads on the beds,” Reynolds said. “You’re going to see more viable off-season business.”

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