The novel coronavirus has wreaked havoc on nearly all parts of the economy, but few have been hit quite so hard as the travel industry. When #StayHome is a globally trending hashtag, it’s not a great time to be in the hotel business.
By early May, weekly travel spending in Massachusetts was down 93 percent year over year, according to the US Travel Association. And due to the tourism standstill, New England was losing $40 million in state and local tax revenue every single week.
That may not improve anytime soon in Boston, where the near-term viability of major tourist draws — museums, theaters, conventions, concerts, sporting events — remains in limbo. But innkeepers in some of New England’s more bucolic destinations are cautiously optimistic about salvaging a summer vacation season, albeit a slow one. There’s hope that, after being housebound for months, people will be ready for a change of scenery.
“It’s literally a breath of fresh air, to be in another environment,” says Joan Talmadge, who, with her husband, Jeff, owns the vacation rental platform WeNeedaVacation.com. While she expects to see fewer tourists on Cape Cod this summer, given COVID-19 concerns and the potential for restrictions on restaurants, beaches, and other attractions, she says, “We also anticipate a great pent-up demand from vacationers who can’t wait to get out of their homes” — restrictions or not.
Mark and Gwenn Snider, owners of the Nantucket Hotel and Resort, expect this season to be something of a throwback. “It’ll be more like the 1950s and early ’60s,” Mark Snider says, with families drawn to the simplicity of open spaces and natural beauty. The hotel is already soliciting vintage vacation photos from guests to celebrate that spirit. “If you’re coming to go bar hopping, that’s probably a very different experience this year,” Snider says. “[But] I think a lot of people will be very happy to get out of their homes, and people will be looking for local destinations.”
Indeed, 47 percent of Americans surveyed by the US Travel Association in April said they would be more likely to travel by car for any post-pandemic vacations, and 42 percent are now more likely to choose destinations closer to home.
That’s good news for properties such as Basin Harbor on Vermont’s Lake Champlain, where most guests arrive by car from nearby states, says general manager Jamie Fox. He expects the resort’s 74 private cottages and sprawling setting to be a selling point this year. “We’re on 700 acres, so no matter what you do, you can get away from people,” Fox says. “We have a lot of hiking trails around the property. We have a great waterfront area where people can rent kayaks and canoes, and they can rent powerboats and go out on the lake with their family and be separate from other groups of people.”
As idyllic as that sounds, traveling this summer may still be a surreal experience at times. Hotels across the region are developing safety and cleaning protocols based on guidance from state public health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says Beth Steucek, chief executive of the New England Inn and Resort Association. So expect chlorine vapors, even if there’s not a pool.
“Staff will probably be serving with masks on,” Steucek says, and guests will likely encounter plexiglass shields at front desks, tables removed from restaurants to add space between diners, near-constant cleaning of common areas, and an end to self-serve breakfast buffets and coffee stations. “It will look different, but I think people will understand that and respect that,” she says.
While most seasonal properties have delayed their openings and are still working out details, some year-round establishments—such as the Nantucket Hotel and 16 Bay View in Camden, Maine — have already put stringent protocols in place while hosting medical staff and other essential workers this spring. They offer a preview of what guests can expect this summer.
Matthew Levin, director of hotels and marketing for 16 Bay View’s parent company, believes the new procedures they’ve adopted on top of an already strict cleaning protocol — including the use of personal protective equipment and the frequent, diligent disinfection of common areas — “will remain in effect for quite a while, and perhaps become regular practice moving forward,” he says. Likewise, social distancing won’t be going away anytime soon. “Even if it’s not mandated, it will still be second nature for most of us.”
Another practice Levin expects to continue when his group’s seasonal properties open in June is a minimum 24-hour period between room stays. Daily housekeeping will also be suspended, at least initially, with guests able to request new towels or toiletries to be delivered to the room. “I think the guests’ expectations will dictate how this will eventually look,” he says.
In spite of all the work to keep guests and staff safe, hoteliers remain committed to sparking vacation magic. “We’re not a hospital, but we want to be able to assure our guests that we’re following all the most stringent protocols,” says Gwenn Snider. “But we try to surprise and delight our guests — it’s a hallmark of our hospitality ethos — and we don’t want to lose that.”
To that end, the Sniders, who also own the Winnetu Oceanside Resort on Martha’s Vineyard, plan to make use of the ample outdoor space at their properties to create a broader range of dining options, including pre-packed picnic baskets and grab-and-go restaurant meals that guests can enjoy outdoors. Guests may also be able to reserve private cabanas by the pool or elsewhere on the property, where they can enjoy chef-prepared meals. “One of things people love to do on the island is eat out, so we have to reinvent that,” Snider says.
Fox is hoping his team at Basin Harbor in Vermont can get creative as well, because there’s so much uncertainty ahead. More than 20 million people lost their jobs in April, and somehow, that’s not even the biggest threat to tourism right now. “You’re not just dealing with people’s inability to spend,” Fox says, “you’re dealing with people’s fears around getting sick, and that adds a whole new element.” He’s planning to offer lower rates with more flexible cancellation terms, but whether that’s enough to lure people from the safety of their homes remains to be seen.
In addition to a shortened season, Fox is bracing for lower occupancy rates, and is planning to hire a lean, local staff — no H2-B visa applicants from abroad this year — trained as utility players. “We’re going to set the tone that we’d love to hire you as a bartender, but we may need you as a server or we may need you as a bellhop,” he says. “We really want to create a team-oriented, all-hands-on-deck mind-set.”
The biggest financial hit, though, has come from a lost season of weddings, Fox says. Brides and grooms don’t really want to wear masks, he notes, and almost everything about a wedding, from dancing to dining at banquet tables, defies social distancing.
Levin fears this year could be worse than the depths of the Great Recession. “We are definitely forecasting a much slower than anticipated, shorter peak season,” he says. He also expects booking behavior to shift more toward last-minute planning by travelers within a day’s drive of Camden — mostly New Englanders who think of midcoast Maine as “a safe escape.”
Fox is also counting on the appeal of fresh air and waterfront living. “We just have everything people are craving right now,” he says. For urbanites stressed out after being on high alert in the presence of other people, he adds, “We have the ability to take that worry away to some degree.”
In the age of social distancing, Talmadge of WeNeedaVacation.com says houses with a private beach, pool, or frontage on one of the Cape’s lakes or kettle ponds likewise hold greater appeal this year. For families who simply want to spend time together outdoors, prepare their own meals at home, and relax on a deck without worrying about bumping into other people in a hotel lobby, even a modest vacation rental makes a lot of sense, she adds.
That’s especially true for those seeking a longer getaway. “We’re noticing a real uptick in inquiries for longer stays, for more than a month even, and we’ve never seen that before for the summer,” Talmadge says. With many nonessential workers permitted or encouraged to work remotely, some could be looking to upgrade the view from their home offices.
Or it might simply be a case of collective cabin fever, Talmadge says. “I think a lot of people, after this lockdown, feel that a week is just a tease.”
Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.