North Country tourism in the COVID era

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, center, visits Lake Placid in October 2020 to meet with Lake Placid Mayor Craig Randall, left, and Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism Chief of Staff Mary Jane Lawrence to discuss economic recovery and tourism. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

Tourism is a huge part of the North Country economy, and it’s been just over a year since the coronavirus pandemic changed almost everything about it here. The Canadian border closed, interstate travel dried up, and what visitors were looking for changed drastically.

But the region did better than regional tourism offices expected and even tapped into new markets.

A “closed” spring

“That’s kind of a new message for the travel industry, you know, don’t come here!”

Last spring, for the first time in Mary Jane Lawrence’s career in tourism, she found herself asking people to stay home.

Lawrence is the Chief Operating Officer of ROOST, the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism. ROOST has offices all over the Adirondacks; Lawrence works in the main office in Lake Placid. She says COVID-19 put the brakes on tourism altogether. “We came to a screeching halt in March, April, May, even June. We were closed. I mean, it wasn’t slow, we were closed.”

The coronavirus and New York on PAUSE orders saw people staying at home, businesses closed, and very little movement travel-wise, especially with the Canadian border closed. And that was scary, for a region so dependent on tourism.

But then, things started to pick back up. Lawrence says July 4th seemed to be a turning point. “We saw travel we didn’t expect to see, we saw a lot of new people coming into the region.”

Summer uptick and new visitors

As it turns out, when summer rolled around, New Yorkers still wanted to travel. But unless they were willing to brave airports and quarantines, they had to look in-state, somewhere they could drive, preferably with low infection rates and lots of outdoor activities.

Lawrence says the North Country checked all the boxes. People came, albeit late, to places like the Adirondacks, and the Champlain Valley, and the Thousand Islands.

In Alexandria Bay, Cindy Durand operates the seasonal, 20 room Rockledge Motel. 2020 was their 3oth year anniversary, and Durand says it was the first year they’ve made less than the year before. Their tradition has always been to open late May, for Memorial Day Weekend. “But we did not open up for Memorial Day Weekend, for the first time in 29 years,” says Durand. Instead, they opened on June 10.

Overall, their revenue was cut in half in 2020, with a busy late summer somewhat making up for the spring. “I do have to say, August last year was probably one of our best months of August ever,” said Durand.

And longtime tourism trends were totally disrupted. The big one, which the Rockledge Motel saw first-hand, was in the make-up of visitors.

Where were the visitors from?

Durand says it was overwhelmingly New York license plates at the Rockledge, and lots of first-timers. “People would come up to us and say ‘Oh my god, this is the first time we’ve ever been to Alexandria Bay!”

Those first-time visitors were so important, because international travel was impossible, and the Canadian border was closed. Kristy Kennedy is the director of tourism for the Adirondack Coast Visitors Bureau, right next to Lake Champlain. Normally, tourists from Quebec, are their bread and butter.

“They makeup, I’d say 80% of our tourism market. We target most of our campaigns towards them, they’re a big part of our audience.”

A crucial part of the audience. When they lost Canadians, Kennedy says they turned their marketing focus to the Capitol region in New York, hoping to attract new audience there. And they found it. It wasn’t a record-breaking year, but New Yorkers came, and stayed, and spent money.

“We’ve wanted to open up to new markets, and this kind of gave us an opportunity. I’m in tourism! I want to think that this was a chance to grow.”

Strong summer, fall, and winter helped make up the difference

A solid summer rolled into a strong fall and a really strong winter. Mary Jane Lawrence, from ROOST, says the good weather definitely played in the region’s favor. “I mean, the weather was just absolutely perfect all summer, and into the fall. And our winter, we just had a tremendous amount of snow.”

Lawrence says overall, the rest of the year helped balance losses from the spring, especially when it came to lodging.

Essex County offers a snapshot: they were down in occupancy taxes in 2020 — but only by 8%. Not great, but also not the expected catastrophe. “We certainly in the Adirondacks had a strong season, in comparison to what we expected it to be.”

Of course, things weren’t 8% down evenly across the board. Lawrence says broadly you can say the industry fared alright. But the success or failure of individual businesses was highly variable. “People are different, and so are businesses!” Some businesses thrived, while others flailed.

However, Lawrence says high-end hotels and short-term vacation rentals — that includes AirBnBs – did extremely well, in comparison to smaller lodging businesses.

The rise of the single-family vacation rental

The Barkeater Inn in Keene saw both sides of that coin, says Megan Kirkpatrick, who operates the inn. “There’s been a bit of a shift in where the guests are staying with more frequency.”

Kirkpatrick and her partner Tyler Nichols say the Barkeater’s stand-alone cabins were more popular than their six-room inn. The smaller of the cabins, a one-bedroom honeymoon-style cabin, has been solidly booked for months. “There’s a certain safety people feel in being able to self-check-in. And [the cabin], it’s booked! And it’s never booked this time of year! Like, back to back to back to back.”

The inn lost most of their events revenue and were closed for months last spring. Luckily, they’ve weathered the storm. “It wasn’t our best year ever, but we were able to ride the waves and be adaptable and welcome the guests who are coming to the region.”

Looking to the 2021 season

Back at ROOST, Mary Jane Lawrence is looking to the upcoming summer season. She and other regional tourism folks are cautiously optimistic.

“You know, all indications are that people are booking earlier, people are still looking for, you know, the outdoor experience, the fresh air, the open spaces. Drive to locations are still high on the traveler’s list.”

They’re expecting more visitors from New York, and immediately neighboring states. If the Canadian border reopens, that would be the cherry on top. I asked when Lawrence thought things would ‘get back to normal’, and her response was that things probably won’t. The pandemic has changed people, and tourism will have to account for that.

“You know, people talk about moving forward, what will people feel like moving forward? It’s hard to go from stop to a sprint. People are going to live in that world of not wanting to be inside, and not wanting to be around crowds, wanting to wear a mask. And some people will be like, okay, I’m done, let’s go! And then there’s going to be an in-between.”


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