Evan Thompson / The Record — Passengers disembark from San Juan Clipper at South Whidbey Harbor on April 1. Around 200 people spent the next two hours in Langley shopping, eating and exploring downtown.

Langley business booster: clipper shuttles thousands to city in slow season

Things have felt a lot like summer over the past month and a half for Langley businesses. But it has nothing to do with the weather.

While activity during the months of March and April is typically modest for Langley’s shops and restaurants, visits by the whale watching boat San Juan Clipper provided a noticeable bump in business. The clipper made a dozen stops over five weekends from March 18 to April 22 during round trips from Seattle, bringing with it as many as 200 people per visit. After docking at South Whidbey Harbor, people had two hours to shop, eat and explore downtown.

Michaleen McGarry, executive director of the Langley Chamber of Commerce, estimated the cruise brought at least 2,200 people in all. That’s roughly twice the city’s population.

Cruise-goers walking down the streets of Langley in droves were a welcome sight for the half-dozen businesses interviewed by The Record.

“It’s been amazing,” said Mona Newbauer, owner of Sweet Mona’s Chocolate Boutique. “Actually, one of the Saturday’s we had were better than a summer Saturday. We’ve been really thankful that it’s been coming in and the people have been great. It’s been a positive experience for us.”

Newbauer said 67 people came to her shop during one two-hour stretch on April 1, followed by 85 people on April 8. The bulk of the customer base came were passengers from the clipper.

Sprinklz owner Jennifer Krouse said at least 100 people visited her shop when the Clipper was in town. Sprinklz’s “grab and go” food such as hot dogs, soup and pretzels were big hits with passengers, especially if restaurants filled up, Krouse said.

“We’d like them to stay all year if they could,” Krouse said.

Prima Bistro is one of eight restaurants that were available to the passengers when they reached downtown Langley. Jenn Jurriaans, owner, said the restaurant was inundated with activity during the Clipper visits. Saturday’s are typically busy for Prima Bistro with or without the boat, but Sundays were noticeably different, Jurriaans said. She estimated 30 to 40 more people than usual.

“We’ve been very pleased with the turnout,” Jurriaans said.

The visits by the San Juan Clipper were organized by the Langley Chamber of Commerce and Port of South Whidbey. Mechanical troubles and operation changes cancelled previous gray whale excursion plans in 2015 and 2016, McGarry said.

Things finally came together in April 2016, when representatives from Clipper Vacations, the Langley Chamber of Commerce and the Port of South Whidbey met at South Whidbey Harbor. Seven months later, Clipper Vacations provided proof of concept and toured the town. Then, in January of this year, Clipper Vacations started advertising gray whale tours to Langley.

The buzz of the Clipper’s pending arrival began just before noon on Saturday and Sundays. After three hours of whale watching, the clipper would dock at South Whidbey Harbor at around noon. Duncan McPhee, harbormaster, and assistant Patrick Boin would be ready and waiting to help tie up the cruise.

Most passengers traveled up Wharf Street, a hill with a fairly steep incline, along the sidewalk. But, others utilized complimentary rides on the Langley Main Street Association shuttle. The free service was particularly useful for older and impaired passengers, said Lorinda Kay, program manager for the association.

“March and April are not high tourist seasons,” Kay said. “It’s really gives a shot in the arm to Langley.”

Once on First Street, the passengers dispersed into smaller groups to explore the town. Cruise goers like Steve Lively and Ann Fairchild of Seattle were pleasantly surprised by the quaint and unassuming Village by the Sea during a visit on April 1.

“It seems kind of cool,” Lively said. “There’s a lot of variety here for this size of town.”

Lively and Fairchild said their first plan of action was to find food. They were similar to other passengers who were more eager to find grub and more likely to window shop, according to Fair Trade Outfitters owner Lilly Van Gerbig. Sometimes though, her shop provided exactly what some passengers were after. Gerbig remembered when a woman came into her shop soaking wet from rain during the first weekend the clipper was in town. Gerbig said the woman found a rain coat she liked and purchased it on the spot.

“She left comfortable,” Gerbig said.

The Langley Chamber of Commerce also had some tricks up its sleeves to incentivize shoppers. While on the cruise, passengers were given bags with discount gift cards to member businesses with the chamber of commerce.

McGarry expects the Clipper will return next year.