‘Tis the season…for shutdowns.
This time of year would typically be prime travel season for skiers hitting the slopes in British Columbia, spring breakers flocking to beaches in tropical locales like Hawaii, and visitors to the Middle East exploring the ancient city of Petra and spending starry nights in Bedouin desert camps—enjoying that sweet, brief window of ideal weather between Jordan’s cold, wet winters and hellishly hot summers.
But with all travel screeching to a halt in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus, this year is anything but typical.
Are seasonal properties uniquely prepared to navigate the current global shutdown? Well, sort of.
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One advantage some have is the fact that they might currently be in the midst of their regularly scheduled annual shutdown. So in that regard, they aren’t necessarily dependent on March or April revenue in the way that a year-round property might be. For example, the cold conditions during the northern hemisphere’s winter months mean some properties, such as the Churchill Wild collection of ecolodges in northern Manitoba, and tented properties like Firelight Camps in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, are not yet open for their summer season. And in Tanzania where heavy rains arrive in April and May, camps, such as the majority of those run by Nomad Tanzania, close each year during this rainy season.
But, as Ingrid Jarret, executive director at British Columbia Hotel & Lodging Association points out, this may be prime time for peak season prep for those properties, when they would normally be “ramping up to hire right now” but in the current situation may be forced to delay instead.
Seasonal properties likely possess the ability to adapt and reinvent themselves, as it’s the nature of the business.
Kalia Konstantinidou, vice president and owner of Kanava Hotels & Resorts, a collection of luxury, seasonal hotels that includes Mystique Santorini and four additional properties in Santorini and Paros, Greece, says that seasonal properties likely possess the ability to adapt and reinvent themselves, as it’s the nature of the business.
“Every season is totally new for us and we almost start from scratch [annually], trying to anticipate what to expect and how to cater best to clients’ demand, demographics, and emerging trends,” she says.
Running seasonal properties requires a certain level of adaptability that she believes will serve her team well during this unpredictable period. “I feel that we have a slight advantage as compared to year-round hotels that work more on an ongoing plan, whereas we have to adjust and overcome constant openings and closures during our lifespan.”
Of course, the abrupt closures and unknown timeline as well as the health and safety concerns caused by the pandemic present additional challenges to all properties, regardless of their annual calendar.
Running Lean and Working From Home
Seasonal properties are often accustomed to running lean for the months when their physical site is closed.
Firelight Camps operates a glamping-style experience from mid-May through late October. So, according to co-founder and CEO Robert Frisch, they have a “lean operation with low staffing, no utilities, and low operating costs” in their off-season. He says that in April, year-round staff begins preparing for the start of the summer season, but they could potentially “extend” their off-season to comply with CDC and state recommendations, as needed. Accommodations are still considered essential businesses in New York State, but that could change and Frisch says Firelight Camps will continue to monitor the situation and reevaluate if necessary.
Mystique Santorini, a luxury property in Oia, Greece was also nearing the end of their off-season and gearing up for an April opening when the government there announced measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 that include a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, a curfew, closure of land borders and schools, restaurants, museums, and other businesses deemed non-essential, and the suspension of air travel to multiple countries in Europe. The property postponed their opening to May 1, and Konstantinidou says that all permanent staff that were office or hotel-based have transitioned to working from home since March 14 in order to comply with the government measures.
Even if not required by the government, work-from-home mode can save money and also reduce risk. “We have multiple members of the team working from home to reduce the population density on the property itself,” says Matthew Bush, recreation manager of the KOA Watkins Glen campground in New York state that is typically open mid-April through late October. He recommends hospitality teams look for creative ways, such as cross-training and prioritizing projects for efficiency, to “cut labor without eliminating current jobs.”
Redirecting Energy Into Improvement Projects
Some properties are using the downtime to make upgrades. Abiding by social distancing and stay-at-home mandates in most cases means doing so with a reduced staff or working on projects that can be completed virtually. During this period of shutdown, focusing on collaborative efforts can help keep morale up.
“We are continuing to work on our off-season projects as much as we can,” says Phil Baxter owner of Sesuit Harbor House in Cape Cod, a seasonal B&B that opens its doors from April through the end of December. “Right now, it’s mainly our family working on these projects since we don’t have our seasonal staff yet and, with social distancing in place, many workers are staying home.” Current projects at Sesuit Harbor House include landscaping, painting, and renovating the animal area for their goats and two incoming alpacas.
The team at Mystique Santorini isn’t letting physical distance prevent them from working together. “During this lean period, we will continue developing new products and ‘wow’ experiences while also taking advantage of the low season for in-house training,” says Konstantinidou.
Firelight Camps is also focusing on tasks that can be tackled together virtually. “Our second location is under development in the Catskills region of New York, and our staff is working from home on that project’s design and permitting,” says Frisch.
Prioritizing Safety and Planning for the Months Ahead
All of the properties we spoke with are accepting bookings for the (northern hemisphere’s) summer season and cautiously planning while trying to remain optimistic.
“We have many bookings already for the upcoming season, and continue to receive new bookings,” says Frisch. “Though the summer is still uncertain, we do expect to see people eager to escape the city and get out into nature. We also expect to welcome guests who may have been planning a bigger trip abroad this year and will now opt to stay closer to home. We are currently assessing how to make sure we provide the safest possible environment.”
Properties with ample outdoor space and distance between accommodations may have an inherent advantage.
Though the summer is still uncertain, we do expect to see people eager to escape the city and get out into nature.”
“As our resorts are all at least 50 acres and outdoors, it is easier to follow social distancing measures,” says Céline Bossanne, co-founder and executive director of glamping resorts Huttopia. Bossanne says that Huttopia is accepting bookings for their resorts in Maine, New Hampshire, and Québec for the summer season that starts on May 15. “Our Trappeur Tents, Vista Cabins or Chalets are all individual accommodations in the middle of nature, with space to roam around, and the opportunity to spend time outside.”
Collective Retreats offers glamping experiences in various locations across the U.S. and is planning for their usual May opening at their Governors Island location. They also believe that the distance-by-design of their sites is beneficial. “When we first launched Collective Retreats, our team carefully measured and tested the space needed between tents to ensure privacy,” says Collective Retreats vice president of hospitality, Vanessa Vitale. “Due to this, we’ve been lucky that many of our retreats can remain operational, as guests can enjoy nature while practicing the required social distancing.”
Of course, the safety of guests and staff will require more than simply maintaining six feet between everyone. Assuming that accommodations will be able to open for their summer seasons (which still remains unknown at this time, given the current spread of COVID-19 and the ever-changing situation), they will need to take extra sanitation measures.
“We are reimagining our food and beverage offerings to be compliant with new health and safety needs so that guests can feel comfortable that we are providing not only the luxury experience that is expected from our brand, but also newly introduced suggestions on keeping restaurant environments safe,” says Vitale.
Many are also devising new ways to limit physical contact. Collective Retreats will be increasing the frequency of their private boat transfers to Governors Island, and Sesuit Harbor House has implemented in-room check-ins that allow guests to bypass front desk interactions, reduced in-room housekeeping, and has five rooms that include kitchens that the staff can stock before guest arrival in order to create a more secluded and safe stay.
For some properties, like Nomad Tanzania, safety considerations also include local wildlife. Although Nomad Tanzania closes up all of their camps (except Entamanu Ngorongoro and the mobile Serengeti Safari Camp) for the rainy season in April and May, the founder and managing director, Mark Houldsworth, says that for some of their camps, a skeleton team remains on site. This is especially important at their Greystoke Mahale camp where the priority extends to the safety of the chimpanzee population there. “We’ve supplied the team there with over two months of provisions [while closed for April and May] so that there is no need for anyone to access Greystoke unless in an emergency,” Houldsworth says. The skeleton team there has “set up strict hygiene protocols in camp and restricted all access to the forest, putting it on a lockdown of its own.”
Flexibility and Communication Are Key
In these uncertain times, all of the properties we spoke with agree that some level of flexibility with cancellation policies is important. Some, like Churchill Wild, will accept bookings for their upcoming season but will not take payment until international travel is allowed. And many are offering guests the ability to rebook at later dates or cancel closer to their planned arrival date in the event that travel is prohibited.
Edoardo Rossi, executive vice president of Dunton Hot Springs in Colorado, says guests that had booked stays but are now unable to visit due to coronavirus-related mandates can get a refund or move their reservation to a future date. Dunton Hot Springs has also modified its booking and cancellation policies for future bookings (that include their seasonal River Camp), removing the cancellation processing fee, reducing the deposit amount, and reducing the number of days—from 60 to seven—before arrival that the deposit is non-refundable. “We feel like they will want to travel to places like ours that are small, remote, and have wide spaces, but they are somewhat scared to commit given we don’t know how long this will last,” Rossi says. “These new policies were put in place to remove pressure on guests.”
Ilona Marmer, owner of the seasonal Catharine Cottages, located near the Seneca Lake Wine Trail in New York state, says a regular guest recently asked whether she should reserve the cottages now for her upcoming annual wine trip with friends—or wait. Marmer assured her she could book without worry now, and if wineries are unable to open, she’d refund her deposit in full.
While each property has to determine their own booking and cancellation policies and they may not be as flexible as Catharine Cottages, Marmer believes that this approach is best in these unprecedented times. “Goodwill is more important to me than keeping a person’s deposit,” she says.
For the time being, many properties are working on unique ways to keep their would-be guests engaged from afar.
“We are seeing more travelers crave inspirational images and stories from around the world,” says Vitale. “At its core, traveling is a way to connect with communities, cultures, and places and it’s important to remember that you can still do that. Now is the time to reconnect with guests through social media or a blog if you provide one.”
When Parks Canada essentially shutdown British Columbia’s backcountry in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, Salina Riemer, PR specialist at Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), says that “watching the snowfall over the last couple of days and knowing that we can’t go out to enjoy it is especially painful.” So CMH is giving lovers of the outdoors a chance to “journey there virtually until we can get back to the real thing.” Viewers can “visit” some of British Columbia’s heli-access-only mountains virtually through a 5-minute virtual reality film, Lines of Sight.
Mystique Santorini is also designing some online experiences to include activities such as making signature cocktails, cooking local dishes, and learning Greek phrases that will be useful when the world finally gets the green light to travel again.
“At this stage, we try to prepare ourselves for the next day in travel,” Konstantinidou says. “We know that nothing will be the same, but we also know that now more than ever people need to connect, to engage with communities, to travel for a purpose, to keep dreaming and to create memories that will be so strong that may even defeat the scary chronicles that we are currently experiencing.”