By Janet Reynolds
Predicting the 2020 Adirondack Park tourism season’s crucial cash infusion is like trying to read a crystal ball. It’s a murky crystal ball, at that.
The variables include the success of a state-mandated, four-phase reopening of the economy. If that goes well, there’s still the question of whether visitors will actually travel and stay in the park.
The numbers in the tourism hub of Essex County—home to Lake Placid—show why many are worried. Based on occupancy taxcollections, 70% of business income flows here during the half of the year from May through October, according to the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST).
Around the park, the early-season indicators have been grim.
“When the pandemic hit, not one email, not one phone call,” said Julie Meeks, who manages Nelson’s Cottages in the Town of Inlet, on Fourth Lake. “No new business came in at all until the beginning of May.”
Many families make yearly visits to the 12-cottage mini-resort that her parents have owned for decades, she said. One family has been coming for 40 years. Groups hold family reunions.
What had looked like a fairly full booking calendar in early March started to open up with April cancellations of June bookings.
At the end of May, as the North Country began the limited Phase 1 in New York’s reopening plan, some July 4 reservations began cancelling. People cited everything from a lack of disposable income to health concerns. Some were irritated with the state’s continuing restrictions: The cottages opened in Phase 1, but the beach and public amenities like a fire pit and basketball court could not open until Phase 4, planned for late June if all went well.
“In the last two months we have had to give back $4,000 in refunds,” Meeks said. “We’re worried about the winter. We still have bills to pay. If we have a bad summer, we would have to dip into our savings.”
ROOST CEO James McKenna places the direct spend by visitors in the Adirondack region annually at just under $1.5 billion. Just as in Essex County, they drop some 70% of it between May and October. In 2018, the taxes generated by the travel industry sent about $101 million to park counties. That’s money that ripples down to the towns. “It not only affects our individual businesses, but affects our public bodies as well,” McKenna said.
The weekend before Memorial Day, the official opening to the summer season, business owners were worried. Many did not receive any money from the federal stimulus packages designed to help them stay in business. The Adirondack North Country Association, a nonprofit economic development organization, polled its members and found 97% of respondents had applied to the first round. Of those, only 7% had received any kind of funding.
ANCA followed up with certain respondents to see if they received assistance in the second funding wave. About one-third of those respondents had, according to Caitlin Wargo, director of development and communications.
The money did not assuage their concerns, though, she said. “While that PPP funding was a fantastic lifeline, the businesses were finding a different set of circumstances once the final documents were shared,” she said. “Seventy-five percent of the money had to be used within two months or it would have to be reimbursed. That is a concern particularly for these small businesses, depending on which (reopening) phase they’re in.”
At Hoss’s Country Corner in Long Lake, store manager Jules Pierce was blunt about how much a good summer season matters to their business. “One million percent.”
She did not expect to have her usual staff from abroad to augment local hires. She expected to limit capacity and ask people to enter from the back door—no mask, no entry. “I’m more concerned about my staff and family than I am about yours,” Pierce said.
Even businesses with stronger online components worried as the season loomed. Michelle Bartlett, owner of Life in the ADK, created an online store and strong social media following before opening her Old Forge gift shop in 2018. Her financial worries began even before the pandemic hit, because of a lackluster snowmobile season.
“Normally I don’t push online (sales) as much,” she said of her pre-pandemic social media strategy on Facebook and Instagram. “Ninety-eight percent was content for what we love about the Adirondacks, talking to people who don’t live here but love it. Loons and sunsets.”
That changed with COVID-19 and she couldn’t get through to unemployment. “The (unemployment) website kept crashing; no one would answer the phone. The bills were still coming in, so I started pushing online once a day just to make ends meet.”
Still, Bartlett makes 80% of her sales in her shop. “You can’t offset that by online,” she said. “We lost a month due to snow and then another month. Now how much of that time can we make up at Phase 2 and the end?”
Uncertainty clouded reopening plans for many businesses. What is a shop’s liability for policing the rules, for instance? “Town government, state health officials—everybody is telling us different things,” Meeks said.
Meanwhile, some park residents have sent mixed messages about whether they welcome visitors.
Residents vocalize their fears of the virus on town social media forums. In March, the Essex County Board of Supervisors took it a step further. As the pandemic ramped up and the shelter-in-place mandates rolled out across the world, Shaun Gilliland, the board chairman and Willsboro supervisor, sent a press release to “visitors, weekenders and second home owners” basically telling them to stay home and to remove their vacation rental properties from sites such as Airbnb and VRBO.
Speaking at the end of May, Gilliland had changed his message—a bit. “We have a more complete picture of the spread of the pandemic in the North Country and Essex, and an opening plan,” he said. “If we stay on track and get through Phases 2, 3 and 4, I think we’ll be in a good position to save a portion of the tourist season.”
Meanwhile, the county has taken a “tremendous hit” from lost sales and occupancy taxes. Sales tax revenue was down about 24% for Essex County at the end of May. “Starting in April, (the occupancy tax) went almost to the floor,” Gilliland said. “We expect to recover somewhat, but it’s not going to get to 100% this year.”
“Everyone is realizing we have to get our economy running again,” McKenna said. “We’re working with the business community to make sure they have the tools to move forward in that manner.”
In addition to reassuring local residents to support local businesses as they reopen, ROOST launched a “Politely Adirondack” campaign in May. It’s a series of posters, images and videos that local businesses can download and print to promote correct social distancing behaviors.
“The first people out and about are going to be local people,” McKenna said. “They’re going to be the people our businesses can concentrate on first and get the protocols in place.”
Then ROOST will promote safe travel to the Adirondacks to day-trippers. The third focus will be what he calls a “reinvented travel market.”
“This will depend on how things are going,” McKenna said. “Some projections have the summer season in July and August 50 to 60% down from last year.”
While the allure for many visitors is the Adirondack wilderness, the closure of many attractions, arts events and festivals doesn’t help in marketing the region. Saranac Lake outdoor concerts, the Lake Placid Sinfonietta concerts, Pendragon Theatre performances and the Adirondack Experience museum in Blue Mountain Lake all announced season closures. That’s just a partial list.
“The lack of attractions will be devastating,” said Mark Dorr, president of the New York State Hotel and Tourism Association, which represents hotels, motels, amusement parks and bed-and-breakfasts statewide. Even opening at 25% capacity would help the travel business, he said. “If museums and parks can open, you’re looking at a 25 to 30% boost in the economy,” he said. “Without them the hotels will be at 50 to 60%.”
Adirondack Experience was one of the first major attractions to announce it would not open. Executive Director David Kahn and the board ran the numbers for various scenarios and opening dates. None of the math worked. “And the safety and health (of employees and visitors) didn’t seem resolvable,” he said. “It’s not like a theater where you can decide to just use 250 seats rather than 1,000 seats.”
Making the decision early enabled the year-round staff to pivot to online content and a new website. The staff is working on virtual programming for the roughly 10,000 school children they typically visit during the school year.
The museum successfully applied for federal Paycheck Protection Program funds, but it still estimates a deficit of about $400,000.
The pandemic could have a potential upside, one that could help the region recover in 2021 even if this summer tourism season does not meet hopes. “For years we’ve been saying we ought to have more of an online presence,” including for students, Kahn said, and a reach beyond the park.
That kind of innovative thinking is part of what Kate Fish, executive director of ANCA, sees as the pandemic’s silver lining. “Why drive three hours one way for a one-hour meeting?” she said. “As municipalities have shifted to virtual meetings, participation has gone up. Citizen engagement could be improved as a result of all this.”
The growing appreciation for local food sources has additional potential for the Adirondack economy, she said. Farmers created a farmers “park-it” in the parking lot of the Hotel Saranac during the shutdown. People ordered online and the food was ready for their car trunk when they pulled up. “One local farmer saw a 300% increase in business during a time when he normally would be quite slow,” she said.
Now an ANCA donor has provided a second round of grants totaling $100,000 to regional farms to further enhance their businesses, Fish said. Food storage is a big part of that, as is processing on site. “It’s exciting to see how innovative these farmers are being and how savvy they are,” she said. “People are looking at the reality of where their food comes from.”