For Bob Avila, owner of Captain John Boats in Plymouth, all signs are pointing toward a strong summer season: A lot of people are booking spots on his cruises, and plenty of humpbacks have been spotted in Cape Cod Bay.
“I think it’s going to be a good year,” said Avila, whose business operates popular whale-watching excursions. “I can see the advanced bookings and they are on the upswing, which is good for everybody. Everybody’s getting house-sick and people want to get out.”
Businesses on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard and in other seaside tourist spots are gearing up for a robust summer season. But two years of operating under COVID has taught them to be prepared for anything — including the economic pinch many are feeling from inflation, supply chain snags, and the ongoing labor shortage.
The pandemic dealt a blow to businesses everywhere in the spring of 2020, but last summer the Cape and Islands saw a spike in tourism as warm weather and vaccines brought people back to the beaches. Jordan Wallace, whose family owns a number of businesses on Martha’s Vineyard, ranging from the Sand Bar & Grille to several bicycle shops, is hoping for another strong season.
“The bookings for products and requests for reservations have been off the charts for this upcoming summer,” said Wallace. “That being said, anything can happen with COVID as the summer progresses, so we’re cautiously optimistic.”
At the Penney Patch, a candy store in the heart of Provincetown, owner Dave Endich says he expects business to be roughly 50 percent above the average May. But even candy is in short supply right now, thanks to closed ports and a clogged supply chain, making the prospect of increased demand especially worrisome this year.
“Expectations are high and we’re hoping it’s going to be a big summer,” said Endich. “But I order candy from a distributor out in Albany, and every week there is the question of whether they get their shipments in because everything is still backed up.”
Reservations at Mansion House Inn on Martha’s Vineyard are “very strong,” owner Susan Goldstein said. But the historic hotel isn’t immune from supply chain issues, either.
“We are over-ordering soaps and things for our rooms like crazy,” said Goldstein. “So that, come August, we’re not running out of anything. It’s been a big challenge.”
Inflation also has businesses struggling to strike
a balance between keeping prices fair for customers and keeping their own operating costs in check.
For Art’s Dune Tours, a sightseeing agency that offers SUV tours of the dunes on Cape Cod National Seashore, the spike in gas prices has been “awful,” said owner Rob Costa.
“It’s wicked expensive to fill a [Chevy] Suburban, so we’ve increased our prices by a few dollars to anticipate the inflation for gas,” said Costa. “So far, it hasn’t stopped any bookings.”
Still, said Mark Snider, owner of Little Gem Resorts, which operates hotels on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, “there’s only so much you can pass on to a customer.”
“Our costs are driven by the price of housing our employees, purchasing food, and everything is much more expensive,” said Snider. “We have to be fair and wise, but also mindful that our costs have gone up.”
For businesses on the Cape and Islands, hiring staff to meet this summer’s demand is a pressing issue. Finding affordable housing for employees in an area with sky-high rental prices is even harder.
Before the pandemic, Wallace and other business owners depended on international workers visiting the United States on J-1 and H-2B visa programs to fill seasonal positions. The programs have resumed after being paused during the pandemic, but COVID-related disruptions in foreign travel continue, and that has forced businesses to also look elsewhere for help.
“We definitely can’t rely on [the J-1 visa program] the way we did in the past,” said Wallace. “So what we’re seeing is a lot more American college students are getting the jobs, but they have to leave in mid-August when we’re sort of at the height of business.”
The housing crunch on Martha’s Vineyard is so severe that last year, Wallace purchased a shuttered inn near Inkwell Beach to house 24 employees who work at the Sand Bar & Grille. For small-business owners like Costa, the housing crisis on the Cape has pushed potential workers away.
“I missed out on a couple [employees] that couldn’t get housing,” said Costa. “I think we’re going to be in for a great year, but it’s only great if you get the staff you need.”
Another factor driving demand on the Cape and the Islands is their relative proximity. With the price of gas and plane tickets sky-high and COVID restrictions still a concern for some international destinations, a nearby summery locale has a lot of allure.
“I think people are doing the staycation,” said Avila. “Everybody takes summer trips, but if it costs $5 for a gallon of gasoline, I don’t think people will be going very far.”
And although demand for short-term rentals on the Cape and Islands has cooled a bit from record numbers last summer, it still remains high, said Jim Reese, chief operating officer of home rental agency WeNeedaVacation. Bookings on the agency’s website are up roughly 35 percent compared to this time pre-pandemic, Reese said.
After a strange two summers under the fog of COVID, businesses on the Cape and Islands are hoping for stability this season.
“I think that any solid business has had to reinvent itself to a degree in the past three years,” said Snider. “I just hope that we have a pattern of normalcy that lasts for a period of time, so we can plan properly and execute properly this summer.”
Annie Probert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.