Lo, the America's Cup is upon us -- yet we have not been run off the road by a pack of folks resembling Thurston Howell III. Tourists are still cramming the F-Line and eating chowder out of bread bowls, as they would on any nippy Aug. 21 in the city.
If San Francisco is going to serve as a beachhead for an invasion force of sailing fanatics who mean to watch them some America's Cup, it's off to a slow start. That said, the embarrassing debacle witnessed during last year's "World Series" races in San Diego, when sparse crowds made a mockery of official estimates of 80,000, may yet be avoided.
Simply put, San Francisco's waterfront is always crowded with tourists, whether there's a big boat race going on or not.
If you're a member of the general public, you probably didn't know much about the Cup's preliminary races until a flurry of conspicuous recent articles in both San Francisco dailies and some ads went up on the sides of Muni buses. If you're a sailing aficionado, however, you knew: Boats belonging to local sailing clubs have long been booked up this weekend as maritime hobbyists are hoping for the best possible views of the races.
Getting sailing enthusiasts to come out and watch the race isn't exactly a marvel of modern marketing, however. And it remains to be seen just how many of those people are currently heading to town and tossing around money. Informal calls to area hotels reveal that it doesn't appear large crowds have yet checked in -- and the weekend crowds, while larger, may not exceed the usual total.
There is a more scientific way to gauge this, but it's not easy to do in real-time. Hotel occupancy rates and sales tax data are amassed by the city controller's office; we've put in a call to ascertain historical levels and what is anticipated for the coming days.
July and August are traditionally the most crowded months for San Francisco hotels, and as you can see in this paper by U.C. Santa Cruz economist Robert Fairlie, San Francisco's hotel occupancy rate has passed 80 percent and continues to rise as the economy gradually improves. So, at least on a spreadsheet, it may be difficult to discern this week from any other during San Francisco's tourism season.
Finally, informal calls to waterfront restaurants revealed that, no, large crowds of yachting enthusiasts are not taking up the tables. It's no more or less crowded than normal. Several places, however, are anticipating larger crowds. The folks over at Neptune's told us they've juggled the work schedules to have more employees on hand to handle a big influx.
Good luck to Neptune's and its staff -- hopefully this is worth their while. Because Neptune's serves as a perfect microcosm of one of the most confusing -- and often misconstrued -- elements of the America's Cup impact reports. Again and again, media stories talked about how many "jobs" would be created as a result of the races. But that's not what was being measured. In actuality, the impact reports calculated "labor years" -- a measure of how much work will be created. But "work" is different than "jobs." Existing employees are the ones most likely to do "work." Whether additional people will be brought in to do extra work is unknown, and, in many cases, unlikely. They're not hiring at Neptune's, incidentally.
Even if this week's crowds are underwhelming -- and we'll be able to look at anecdotal evidence fairly soon and hard data a bit later -- Cup organizers and city cheerleaders will be able to point out that these are just preliminary races and the real deal is coming next year. That's true. But, so far, the classic pattern of big promises and receding expectations is in place.
Predicting what'll happen is tricky. Perhaps it's fitting that the host team is called "Oracle."
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