Portland Paddle owner Zack Anchors: “Really my goal is just to draw enough customers so that we can continue to be fully staffed, keep our guides working, and bring in enough revenue to basically just keep the business open." (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)
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Summer in Maine this year is going to be unlike any other.

Thanks to restrictions imposed to contain the novel coronavirus, there will be no outdoor festivals, fairs or concerts. No summer blockbusters to watch in air-conditioned theaters. Limited lodging choices, and fewer places to dine.

There will be few, if any, out-of-state tourists – and yet, as Memorial Day weekend launches the traditional tourism season, businesses across the state are feeling pressure to begin the lucrative summer season.

Tourism industry groups are encouraging in-state tourism, and for the first time, Vacationland may be restricted to Mainers.

“We have to pay attention to our own community as much as we would an out-of-state community,” Kerrie Tripp, executive director of the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau, said May 19. “Out-of-state visitation is going to be much lower, but Mainers experiencing Maine in a new way is going to be an all-time high, and that’s really exciting for us.”

Portland Paddle employees kayak off East End Beach on May 22. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

For Zack Anchors, owner of Portland Paddle, a sea kayak and stand-up paddleboard tour company on Portland’s East End Beach, the reality of the summer of 2020 means getting creative about how to market his business. 

Last week, Anchors announced a pay-what-you-can program for guided paddling trips and lessons for Mainers for the month of June. His business has already seen a surge in reservations for the month.

“We’ve had a mix of some people paying full price and some people taking significant discounts, and sold a few gift certificates,” Anchors said. “It feels like it’s off to a good start.”

Of the several thousand people who sign up for Portland Paddle trips each summer, about 70 percent usually come from out-of-state, he said. But with a 14-day quarantine in place for out-of-staters, the customer base is drastically smaller.

“We want to make those (lessons) really accessible to Mainers and make it as easy as possible for people to get out and come on our tours,” Anchors said, “even if it’s something they normally couldn’t afford.” 

Portland Paddle plans to open for the season on Friday, May 29, a couple weeks later than usual, with 30 guides, 10 of whom are full-time.

“Really my goal is just to draw enough customers so that we can continue to be fully staffed, keep our guides working, and bring in enough revenue to basically just keep the business open,” Anchors said.

All employees at Portland Paddle have the option of paid sick leave throughout the season.

“Adapting to COVID-19 is just sort of another risk to manage for us,” he said, noting that physical distancing on the water is fairly easy. “It’s a pretty natural expansion to what we already do. We always clean our (personal flotation devices), but now we have to every time someone touches them, and sanitize them.”

The company will not be hosting overnight trips on nearby islands and cannot accommodate large groups, as it has in the past, but otherwise plans to continue guided tours and lessons throughout Casco Bay, along with rentals at a discounted price for Maine residents. 

“The (14-day) quarantine would have a huge impact,” Anchors said, “but I would like Gov. Mills to listen to the public-health experts. I don’t want her to rush to a decision if it’s not in the best interest of Mainers – not just seasonal businesses, but all Mainers.”

Out-of-staters fuel tourism

Maine, with a population of 1.3 million, last summer counted almost 29 million visitors on tourism-related trips. Approximately 80 percent of those visitors were from other states, according to a study published by the Maine Office of Tourism.

In Bar Harbor, the Chamber of Commerce knows that in-state tourism cannot generate revenue comparable to traditional summers. 

“Every visitor would be highly valuable,” Alf Anderson, director of the Bar Harbor chamber, said May 19. “But the business model for Bar Harbor businesses has been growing for years, and folks have been coming from outside the state of Maine.”

The summer months make up about 60 percent of the state’s $6 billion annual tourism industry, according to the Maine tourism office.

For now, the office is promoting inspirational imagery of Maine through its marketing program, while not explicitly encouraging out-of-staters to visit.

A message board in deserted downtown Old Orchard Beach on May 22 urges visitors to maintain social distance. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

“It is important to keep Maine in people’s minds, just so when they start to think of places to go, we’re on the list,” said Steve Lyons, the office director. “For the time being we’re kind of waiting to see how the virus plays out, how things will change. We’re following the governor’s executive orders.”

In Southwest Harbor, luxury campground Acadia Yurts also decided to offer a pay-what-you-can program to give in-state tourists incentive to venture Downeast. 

“We had to cancel all of our out-of-state guests, which is 95 percent of what we get. We were looking at an empty calendar,” said Karen Roper, who co-owns Acadia Yurts with her husband Aaron Sprague. 

The campground offers seven yurts and two small houses that provide lodging for up to 34 guests at a time. 

“We lost about a third of our season by not opening until June,” Roper said. “We feel like even if we can’t welcome out-of-state guests, we can still welcome Mainers and will still be stoked.”

Less than 48 hours after announcing the pay-what-you-can program, the entire month of June was booked with 84 families, and the campground now has a waitlist for June. The program has generated about 40 percent of the business’ typical revenue for the month.

“This was a little bit of a nice reminder that we do have a lot of people within our own state that want to be supporting local businesses,” Roper said. 

When guests applied for the program, they were only asked one question: What does vacation mean to them? Responses ranged from people in dire financial situations to many families looking for vacations to celebrate birthdays or hoping to reunite. A quarter of the applicants have not been to Acadia before, and many respondents said it would otherwise be cost-prohibitive in the summer.

“We’ve taken our usual playbook and tossed it out the window,” Roper said. “We’re thrilled … 40 percent is better than zero percent.” 

June looks ‘pretty bleak’

But not every tourism business can pivot and change its business plan almost overnight. In Saco, Funtown Splashtown USA announced it wouldn’t open this summer; not far away, Palace Playland in Old Orchard Beach has yet to open. 

Palace Playland President Paul Golder said the seasonal amusement park typically opens its arcade in mid-April, with rides following on Memorial Day weekend. This year, the timeline is still unknown. 

Palace Playland in Old Orchard Beach is normally fully open on Memorial Day weekend. But this isn’t a normal year, and the park is closed until further notice. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

“We are hoping to be able to operate in some capacity,” Golder said. “What that means we’re not so sure, but we feel like the majority of our operation is an outdoor activity in a lot of ways that allows for social distancing.”

In addition to wearing masks, increasing cleaning procedures, new signage and sanitization stations, the park is considering revoking its unlimited rides pass, which would reduce density on any given day.

The majority of Palace Playland customers are from out of state – Massachusetts, Canada, or the rest of New England – and the 14-day quarantine is a hurdle to a successful season.

“If we do have to rely on only Mainers, I don’t see that being realistic,” Golder said. “Obviously a business in our position, being so seasonal, whatever we miss now, our season won’t come around again until next year.”

Just down East Grand Avenue at the Alouette Beach Resort, owner Fred Kennedy is also waiting for policies from the state government to come into focus.

Although Gov. Janet Mills has allowed lodging businesses to start accepting reservations for June, the month “is looking pretty bleak,” Kennedy said, noting that many larger parties coming in for weddings, basketball tournaments, golf trips, and the annual Scottish Festival have canceled reservations.

Out-of-state visitors are reluctant to come because of the 14-day quarantine order that remains in effect, he said, and have canceled reservations throughout the summer.

“It’s already devastated the business,” Kennedy said. “We still have some reservations and a lot of those people are hanging on, hoping that they’ll still be able to come. We’ve told them to adopt a wait-and-see attitude.”

Kennedy also owns two other Old Orchard Beach motels, the Beach Walk Oceanfront Inn and the Neptune. The majority of his staff is still on the payroll, and the Alouette Beach Cafe is still providing takeout and delivery food services.

Fred Kennedy owns the Alouette Beach Resort, Beach Walk Oceanfront Inn and the Neptune, all in Old Orchard Beach: “Not only are we not receiving money, but we were having to pay out refunds. We’re really in a double whammy in the hotel business.” (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

The Alouette, which is open year-round, is also open to essential workers and rents to some long-term guests who stayed through the winter. Right now, Kennedy said, reservations are only at 5-10 percent of what the resort ordinarily has booked at this time. 

“One of the problems we’ve had is that since we take reservations a year in advance, we had to refund so many cancellations,” he said. “Not only are we not receiving money, but we were having to pay out refunds. We’re really in a double whammy in the hotel business. It’s going to be a tough year for us even when things relax a little bit because we’ve had to give back so much money.”

Kennedy received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but is concerned the forgivable portion might fall short due to the seasonal nature of his payroll expenses. 

“If you have a hotel where you can’t rent rooms, your value goes down for that period,” he said, suggesting that the government reduce property taxes and sales taxes on income-producing properties to lighten the financial burden.

Despite the vacancies, however, the Alouette has been in town for 20 years and has a financial cushion that properties with higher mortgages, costly expansions, or new owners may not enjoy. 

“We could take a reduction in business for one season and probably weather the storm,” Kennedy said. “But I don’t think we’re the usual hotel.”

Businesses divided

Those “usual” businesses may be left to choose between waiting for conditions to change or shutting down.

On May 12, seven tourism groups posted an open letter to the Mills administration, asking for the elimination of the 14-day quarantine period for out-of-state visitors.

“Maine’s tourism economy is on the verge of a collapse and we need your help,” the letter said. 

Signed by the Maine Tourism Association, the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Hospitality Maine, among others, the letter asked for creation of new safety protocols that would allow the economy to reopen. 

“Public safety is always the first and foremost concern of every decision that’s made, but the 14 days – there are so many gray areas,” said Tony Cameron, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association. “How do you even police it?”

Tourism officials in Bangor and Bar Harbor echoed this sentiment.

“Having a 14-day quarantine on visitation to the state is really difficult to allow businesses to open, to be able to salvage some season and livelihood,” Greater Bangor CVB Executive Director Kerrie Tripp said. “We’re asking for alternatives that are safe and thought out. We work within the industry and want to open that conversation with the administration.”

In Portland, however, owners of more than 80 small businesses published a letter to Gov. Mills asking for the 14-day quarantine to remain in place.

“We have done our parts as you asked,” the May 18 letter said. “… Now we’re asking you to refute the voices calling for a faster reopening, and follow (the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s) recommendations.”

With so many businesses that rely on summer tourism feeling pressure to operate, it could be up to Maine residents to come to the rescue. 

At Thompson’s Point in Portland, the first half of the summer concert season was canceled and the weekly summer sunset gatherings are curtailed for now.

“(We) are looking at it as an opportunity to get inventive and have some fun while still staying safe and keeping our patrons and our team healthy,” Thompson’s Point event manager Kelley Burich said in an email last week, along with owners Chris Thompson and Jed Troubh. 

The event space is planning for gatherings of fewer than 50 people for the summer and hopes to take advantage of its large amount of outdoor space. For now, programming includes a live-stream concert broadcast to raise funds for Maine musicians, along with welcoming food trucks back to the property.

“While the restrictions on visitors from out of state are in place, we don’t expect to see too many of them,” the team said. “We have always been a project that sought to matter to the local community.

“There is a ton of enterprising creativity out there right now, and a huge need for people to work together in a way that supports each other and creates the rising tide to lift all boats.” 

Back at East End Beach last week, Portland Paddle’s wooden boat rack was full of kayaks. Zack Anchors closed up one of the two white containers that the company operates from,  until tours would begin later this week.

“We’re not open yet, so I don’t know how it’s going to work, but I think we have a good plan,” he said. “We’re finding out that everything we do, there’s just going to be a few extra steps now.”

Freelance writer Jenny Ibsen lives in Portland.

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