Summer's Officially Over - What's Next for Businesses That Rely on Seasonal Tourism?
Four ways seasonal businesses can adapt to ever-changing circumstances right now.
On a sunny day in late August, the scene in Ogunquit, Maine, a small coastal town about 45 minutes south of Portland, was typical for its busy season. Tourists milled about in front of souvenir shops rifling through stacks of T-shirts with “Maine" emblazoned on them, and the line at local ice cream shop Sweet Pea’s was 10-deep. But the scene still wasn’t typical: Everyone had masks on, and that line at Sweet Pea’s? It stretched halfway down the block in accordance with social distancing.
Maine’s coast is a popular summer destination any year, but New York, New Jersey and Connecticut residents in particular flocked there in even greater numbers this warm season to take advantage of the fact that — coming from neighboring states with low infection rates — they weren’t required to quarantine for 14 days or present a negative Covid-19 test upon arrival (residents of New Hampshire and Vermont are also exempt). But talking to an Ogunquit resident during my visit, he pointed out that though the streets seemed busy to an outsider, it was practically empty relative to previous summers, forcing business owners there — as with everywhere around the world — to think creatively and pivot where necessary.
Now that summer’s over, what’s next for towns like Ogunquit? Read on to see four ways seasonal businesses can adapt and stay afloat through the cold months ahead.
Take advantage of abnormal school schedules
“September is the new August,” jokes Nancy White, managing director of Cliff House, a 226-room resort about 10 minutes from Ogunquit. After closing for several months, the hotel reopened in June to eager, but smaller, crowds than normal. For the first few weeks it was only open to Maine residents, but the hotel has gradually started welcoming visitors from more states as Maine’s quarantine rules have changed.
Cliff House’s two outdoor pools, miles of walking trails and fire pit with nightly s’mores are made for enjoying the outdoors, which is why its busiest months of the year are typically June, July and August, when the weather in Maine is predictably pleasant. September usually means families head back home for school and conference business picks up, but that’s obviously not happening this year. Instead, Cliff House has seen more families booking multi-week stays to take advantage of the fact that children are either starting school late, going online or being homeschooled. And with the dearth of big events or conferences happening, White says they’ve turned conference space into “Zoom rooms” guests can book for calls, and Cliff House’s massive ballrooms can be used for children doing virtual school (with breaks for “recess” in the kids club or indoor pool).
Now that that summer is winding down, White’s team is focusing on planning activities like mazes and biking trails for fall and igloos and snowshoe trails for winter. White explains that guests will say, “‘I don’t want to fly; I’m not going to the Caribbean right now. Winter is coming, so let’s take a five-day weekend and go up the coast.’”
Follow the trends
Thirty minutes up the road from Cliff House near Kennebunkport, Hana Pevny is keeping the doors of her six-room boutique property, Waldo Emerson Inn, open by rethinking her business model. When restrictions in Maine started easing, “I quickly realized I had an advantage due to my property’s smaller size, so I advertised it as a short-term rental,” she says. “Within 48 hours of posting it online I received a reservation for the month of June from a group of millennials from New York who could work remotely. In Maine we weren’t allowed to accept guests in lodging facilities until June 26, but being a long-term rental for 31 days allowed me to generate revenue when others couldn’t.”
Then, she noticed a pattern among her guests and quickly pivoted to meet their new needs. “I’ve always had two dog-friendly rooms, but I noticed a trend in Covid dog adoptions, so I made my entire inn dog-friendly to cater to this growing niche market,” she says.
Now, Pevny is balancing running her normal business and occasionally renting out the entire property to people looking for a coastal escape, which also gives her some much-needed rest.
Go where your customers are
A few hours east in Waterbury, Vermont, the portability of Katya d’Angelo’s summer side hustle made the biggest difference in her sales this summer. She runs The Udder Guys, an “ice cream trike” that she pedals around town from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Fewer tourists meant d’Angelo opened four nights a week instead of six and closed 30 minutes earlier than usual, but she was able to easily move around to find business where local customers were instead of tourists.
“Changing locations was the biggest adaptation for this year, which ultimately proved so successful that I will likely continue that next season,” she says.
Other than a few small weddings this month, she’s now put the trike into hibernation for the winter, but the summer proved more fruitful than she expected. “Business was better than expected considering everything, although my processing fees were much higher as more people used credit cards,” she says. Still, “The ability to set up where there were actually people was hugely beneficial,” d’Angelo adds. “I also have Vermont’s residents to thank for being responsible — the state’s, and my town’s, caseload has been one of the lowest in the country, so locals felt comfortable heading out for an ice cream treat.”
Look for the positive
On the other side of the country in a remote corner of Alaska near Bristol Bay, Nanci Morris Lyon’s sport fishing lodge has dealt with setback after setback as she attempts to keep the business afloat. A fishing guide with more than 35 years of experience, Lyon runs Bear Trail Lodge for just three-and-a-half months out of the year, June through mid-October, which brings in 90 percent of her annual income. Though the state of Alaska never required her to shut down, business was down about 40 percent, and at one point early in the year the regional air carrier went bankrupt, which meant no one could fly in and out of Anchorage for two weeks.
“This season has looked nothing like anything I can even compare it to,” Lyon says. “I’ve run my operation through multi-day volcanic shutdowns when flights couldn’t make it to our remote location safely. I’ve run it through the devastation of 9/11 and through President Obama’s visit when all airports were closed to ensure safety. Out of all of those hurdles, this season has been by far the most challenging and stressful.”
Lyon has taken those changes in stride, though, renting out vacant employee rooms to construction workers and Alaska Airlines employees to cover her mortgage, helping guests navigate the changing quarantine and testing requirements and re-booking guests who had to cancel this year’s trips.
Lyon and her now-smaller team, however, are hoping for weather that allows them to stay open through late October and banking on a viable vaccine that will help them fill rooms in the next several seasons. “If we’re forced to endure another season like this one, I’ll dwell on the positive — all of the lessons I’ve learned,” Lyon says. “I know how to space my tables to maintain six-foot distances. I already have air purifiers and hand sanitizer locations installed. My guides know how to maintain distance. I am cautiously optimistic that people will want to travel and see the beauty of the Bristol Bay region. My goal is to fulfill those dreams.”