Maine’s hotels and inns are seeing reservations ramp up after Gov. Janet Mills last week announced a plan to open the state to more visitors and relax capacity limits in time for the crucial tourism season.
It could not come too soon for lodging businesses that saw reservations grind to a halt when the Democratic governor set coronavirus restrictions last March. Hotels closed until June and it was not until just before the July 4 weekend last year that accommodations were allowed to serve out-of-state visitors who quarantined or had a negative COVID-19 test.
At the Cedar Crest Inn in Camden and the Cod Cove Inn in Edgecomb, owner Ted Hugger said he lost reservations for attendees at 28 canceled or postponed weddings last year. Matt Barter, owner of the Glen Cove Inn and Country Inn in Rockport, saw a 40 percent revenue drop last year.
This year, things are looking up. Hugger said he has 21 weddings on the books, including six new reservations and 15 that rescheduled. Barter, too, has seen an uptick in reservations, calling the reopening plan “a good start.”
“We are reaching out to people and appreciate that she made the announcement,” Hugger said.
It is still too early to tell how much the governor’s rule relaxations will boost reservations, as people who book reservations do so a couple months to a year ahead of time. Changes in state policy last year were announced too close to the reopening dates to attract much business, Hugger said.
Had there been enough clarity on capacity limitations in time, he could have handled the fewer number of people allowed when lodging reopened in late June. But the governor’s longer notice this year will help the hotels prepare for visitors, he said.
“I feel very confident that the relaxing of the restrictions has had a positive impact,” said Greg Dugal, a lobbyist for HospitalityMaine.
The industry took a big hit last spring and recovered somewhat over the summer, although it still is down from 2019 numbers. State revenue from taxable sales, an indicator of the health of the hotel industry, dropped 80 percent from March to April last year.
Accomodations suffered the ripple effect of canceled or rescheduled weddings in 2020. The wedding industry contributed about $937 million to the Maine economy in 2017, according to a University of Maine and Maine Wedding Report study.
The state opened up to out-of-state guests from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in July. Those states, along with visitors already allowed from New Hampshire and Vermont, account for 40 percent of overnight visitors to Maine, according to a state study.
The governor’s recent changes allow indoor capacity to increase to 50 percent on March 26 and 75 percent on May 24. Outdoor capacity increases to 75 percent on March 26 and 100 percent on May 24. Visitors from all New England states can come to Maine without quarantine or tests immediately, as can people from any state who have had COVID-19 recently or been fully vaccinated against it.
Hugger said he has been able to survive so far with two federal Paycheck Protection Program loans and a state economic recovery grant that got him through a year when sales were off 50 percent.
He and his wife had initially considered shutting down both properties and riding out the coronavirus, selling them or trying to make a go of it. They decided that the businesses were viable in the long-term. Still, he does not expect to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023.
But he does worry about an opposite problem when the floodgates reopen and there is an influx of businesses from pent-up demand, saying getting enough staff back “will be an issue.”
Hugger said some of the cost-cutting and safety changes at his inns were beneficial and he wouldn’t have thought of making them without the virus forcing it. But he reflected on the past year with some other wishes.
“I’m still hoping I’ll wake up and it’s all been a bad dream,” he said.