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June 10, 2024

From pizza to oysters, CT focuses on smaller attractions to boost tourism efforts

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (left) recently traveled to Washington, D.C., with members of the state’s “pizza delegation” to declare New Haven the pizza capital of the U.S. She was joined by Richard “Ricky” Consiglio (center), the son of Sally’s Apizza founder Salvatore (Sally) Consiglio, and Sally’s chef Bret Lunford.

Oysters have been harvested from Connecticut waters for thousands of years. New Haven has produced world-famous pizza for more than a century.

But, can these mainstays in the Connecticut economy and culture help draw more tourists to the Nutmeg State?

State and local officials think so, and they are looking to add native gems like pizzerias, oyster farms and other smaller attractions to the growing list of popular Connecticut tourist destinations, hoping to boost the overall number of visitors to the state, while also attracting more residents and businesses.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in May entered an official statement into the Congressional Record declaring “New Haven the pizza capital of the United States.” A “pizza delegation” of state officials, restaurateurs and tourism industry leaders traveled to Washington, D.C., for the event.

Also last month, the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) released a short film about the aquaculture industry to coincide with the debut of Connecticut’s first “oyster trail,” highlighting local oyster farms, seafood markets and restaurants.

The film, “Rising Tide to Table,” was directed by the state’s Chief Marketing Officer Anthony Anthony, who said tourism continues to be a major focus area for state economic development officials.

Former DECD Commissioner Alexandra Daum, in outlining tourism as one of her top priorities, said smaller or lesser-known attractions deserve some of the spotlight as they collectively contribute to the state’s economic vitality and help attract visitors and residents.

Anthony joined the Lamont administration under Daum in early 2023, when he learned that state tourism objectives were intertwined with other DECD efforts to recruit businesses, grow jobs and make Connecticut a desirable place to live, work and play.

Since then, Anthony has helped spearhead marketing efforts — including the launch of a new “Make It Here” statewide branding campaign — that aim to bolster not only outsiders’ perception of Connecticut, but also raise and leverage home-state pride.

“Connecticut’s identity is that of creators, makers, innovators and entrepreneurs,” he said. “The marketing plan included giving Connecticut a strong identity, and making people think of us as a place to visit,” and incorporating stops to smaller boutique and craft attractions while here.

“And if we do all that, it will help us grow the economy,” Anthony added.

Connecticut’s new “oyster trail” highlights restaurants and local shops that sell native oysters.

Promoting pizza

For native and longtime Nutmeggers, New Haven’s reputation for outstanding pizza is well-known.

Sally’s Apizza in New Haven is one of the many historic pizzerias along Wooster Street that has helped the Elm City earn its reputation.

Sally’s took part in the pizza delegation trip to Washington, D.C., along with other popular New Haven establishments such as Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, Modern Apizza, Pizza at The Brick Oven, Next Door, Big Green Truck Pizza, BAR, Est Est Est Pizza, and Cast Iron Chef Chop House.

DeLauro said the state’s more than 1,300 pizza-making establishments are the most of any state per capita, and they produce over 150 million pizzas annually, equaling $3.5 billion in sales. New Haven’s 75 pizzerias generate over $100 million in annual sales, feeding 2 million customers annually, she said.

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said the city’s pizzerias are local, national and international destinations.

Sally’s and Pepe’s have been on Wooster Street for decades, and their growing popularity in recent years convinced them both to expand, with new locations throughout New England and beyond. Pepe’s now has eateries as far away as Virginia and Florida.

Sally’s has three locations in Connecticut and one in Massachusetts, with five more in the development pipeline.

Christian Bonaventura, a spokesperson for Sally’s, said the pizzeria’s original and new locations have contributed to steady growth, with a higher percentage of tourists visiting the Wooster Street site, while the new locations are more popular with local customers.

Bonaventura said Sally’s revenues have grown more than tenfold from adding the new locations. The average unit volume for Sally’s is more than $3.8 million per restaurant location, he said.

Anthony said it’s attractions like Wooster Street in New Haven or local seafood shops that help tourism officials “plant these little flags in places where we know we can not only stand out, but also help us market ourselves better.”

Return on investment

The timing for promoting the oyster industry is also strategic, Anthony said, as the industry is likely to get a boost from recent legislative changes.

A bill passed in 2021, for example, extended decades-old protections that allow aquaculture lands to be classified as farms and subject to reduced property tax rates. Legislation passed last year allows the Department of Agriculture to designate oyster harvesting areas in waters under state jurisdiction. That will ensure preservation of the industry longer term, officials said.

The state has 61,000 acres of shellfish farms, which generate over $30 million in annual sales; oyster sales alone reached $14.6 million in 2023, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Just over $30,000 went into production of the oyster documentary and development of the oyster trail, Anthony said.

The trail includes a map that charts more than 12 oyster farms and 20 restaurants and seafood markets in the state.

Meantime, the state spent $5,000 to charter the Avelo Airlines flight to D.C. for the pizza delegation.

While it’s difficult to gauge the impact of each individual campaign, efforts to broaden the state’s tourism reach have been effective, Anthony said.

In 2023, the state had its best year ever for the number of visitors, at just under 68 million, while lodging revenues increased to more than $1.3 billion, he said. The state’s tourism website had 9.4 million visitors in 2023, up 32% from the previous year, Anthony said.

State officials are also doing more with less, he noted. Neighboring Maine spends more than $20 million on its tourism efforts, versus Connecticut’s $4.5 million tourism department budget in 2023, Anthony said.

Jan Jones

Jan Jones is a lecturer and professor of hospitality and tourism management at the University of New Haven’s Pompea College of Business. She also serves on the state Tourism Coalition, Connecticut Hospitality Education Foundation, and CT Meetings board.

She said promoting smaller destinations can have a broader effect on the state’s tourism efforts. People who might come for pizza will then stay for ice cream or shopping.

“So, there’s a lot of cross collaboration, which is why it’s important to promote these,” Jones said.

One challenge, Jones said, is measuring the tourism impact of smaller attractions like pizza parlors or oyster dinners, but with advances in data analytics, it could become easier to do that in the future.

“As analytics data improves, we’re going to see more and more of that kind of data collection, being able to track where visitors are coming from, whether Connecticut or out of state,” Jones said. “As the power of analytics and looking at that data grows, tourism figures and efforts are going to actually only improve.”

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