Maine’s tourism industry managed to avert a complete disaster this summer, thanks in part to short-term rentals and outdoor and takeout dining, particularly in resort outposts that drew pandemic-weary visitors from urban areas. But overall the industry took a massive hit, and some sectors are looking ahead to a bleak winter, even as they try out new ways to adapt.
Annalise Lafayette manages Portland’s Holiday Inn by the Bay — one of a group of hotels her family runs in Maine and New Hampshire.
“This property has been one of our properties that was hit by far the worst. Basically by March 15 almost all our groups canceled within a day. It was by the hour losing $100,000, then up to $1 million and it just kept going,” she said.
Lafayette said that with vacationers in the summer, the hotel has managed to claw partway back to normal.
But with its big banquet halls and 12 meeting rooms, the hotel’s bread and butter is group sales — big groups, attending multiday conferences and other events, such as the annual New England Veterinary Conference or the Geological Society of America.
“But yeah we’re 95 percent down on the group business side. So it has definitely been a difficult six months and the forecast right now doesn’t look great either.” Lafayette said.
Conferences and large business meetings have been a growing sector in Maine, with venues such as the Holiday Inn, the Marriott Sable Oaks in South Portland or Rockport’s Samoset Resort looking to the late fall and winter as the heart of the conference season.
Not this time around.
“I mean there’s virtually no meetings, zero, and right now they are canceling into 2021 now,” said Steve Hewins, CEO of Hospitality Maine, the industry trade group. “In fact, I’m speaking at the annual MEREDA conference, the Maine Real Estate Association group, commercial real estate group. They do that every year at the Holiday Inn by the Bay and they draw 1,000 people. It’s like the biggest single event in the state. And they’re going to do it virtually in January.”
Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, noted that the winter conference season usually brings in much-needed visitors not just to the big hotels, but to restaurants, bars and other entertainment businesses that count on them for support during the colder months.
“And it’s really hard to see when that will come back. I’m not sure when we’ll be in a place where we can gather again, when people feel comfortable gathering, And that’s just a hard business to replace,” she said.
And Hewins said the apparent collapse of bookings for larger-scale conferences in Maine will only add to what is a dismal story of revenue and job losses in the state’s hospitality sector as a whole.
“We’ve got a report coming out next week from the University of Maine that we commissioned that’s a follow-up to a report they did in June on the state of hospitality, and we’re going to show about $2.4 billion in revenue losses this year. It’s down about 30 percent from 2019,” he said.
That doesn’t mean, though, that industry leaders are giving up. Some, like Lafayette, are innovating.
She said that with so many businesses sending staff home to work remotely for long stretches of time — maybe even permanently — there could be a new need for periodic, in-person get-togethers.
Venues such as hers can provide space to spread out in areas served by brand new, high-tech ventilation systems and well-produced audio-visual streams.
“We had a company that has been working remotely and they wanted to get their employees back together. And we actually opened a new concept over next door in our parking garage, which has a beautiful view of the bay, and we were able to utilize that space so it was outdoors and socially distanced and everything,” she said.
Lafayette said it’s possible that many businesses will remain disaggregated even after the pandemic’s worst dangers pass. But the benefits of doing business face-to-face will remain, she said, and smart hotels will be there to assist.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.