The year 2020 was supposed to be a very special year for the Cape and Plymouth area.
The planning of events and celebrations for the 400th commemoration of the Pilgrims’ landings had been in the works for years across the region, including a majestic fall sailing of the Mayflower II into Provincetown Harbor.
Instead of the Year of the Pilgrim, however, it was the Year of the Pandemic, a global health crisis that killed millions worldwide, shuttered businesses, canceled events and created economic havoc and unemployment not seen in generations.
“2020 was going to be a special year for the town of Plymouth with the Commemoration and this was a tougher hit to our community than some others in the Commonwealth,” agreed Amy Naples, Executive Director of Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce.
While the pandemic is still affecting our lives in early 2021, optimism is high in the tourist industry, growing like a crocus poking up through the snow and frozen earth. Even the struggling restaurant industry, beset with more closings and capacity restrictions than most businesses, is showing signs of recovery.
“People are starting to feel the cabin fever and I see a lot of planning for once people get the vaccine,” said Vincent A. J. Errichetti, an expert in social media and marketing strategy who specializes in New England food and hospitality industries. “My newsletter for Valentine’s Day spots had over 50 percent open rate, normally around 33 percent. Since my list is about 40,000 of the most active foodies, this is a hopeful sign for a bounce back.”
Errichetti said takeout and delivery has started to increase from even restaurants thought of as dine-in only. “DIY pizza kits and the like have exploded in popularity,” he added. “Local and regional travel destinations have been actively promoting how they are great options because they can control social distancing. And just like restaurants, they are always cleaning and are experts at it between hotel rooms and dining areas. This gives consumers a better knowledge of being in a safe environment.”
While the American Hotel and Lodging Association predicts a successful 2021 season as dependent on the availability of a COVID-19 vaccine, the pent-up demand after months of on and off stay-at-home orders and restrictions on travel is already resulting in brisk bookings and interest for summer vacations especially on Cape Cod.
Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce reports its web traffic increased 150 percent as of late January (year over year), an indication that could turn into high demand and bookings, said Wendy Northcross, the chamber’s executive director.
“Some members have reported very strong bookings for 2021, even to the point of bookings in 2022 beginning,” Northcross said. “That is very different from pre-COVID times when the more local visitor would wait until the last minute to book.”
The chamber’s marketing strategy “presents the value proposition to COVID-19 weary residents of respite and outdoor activities that support health and well-being; fresh sea air, beautiful beaches and wide, open spaces.”
The biggest questions heard in the chamber’s visitor services phone lines is what is open and when.
“Visitors are definitely ready to travel again, when the time is right!” Northcross said. “We have a bigger challenge with group business which is a significant portion of the hospitality business in our region, but have been virtually shut down due to gathering limits for safety. Brides and wedding planners top the list for carefully watching what will be allowed when, and hoping they can keep their spring and early summer weddings.”
Chatham Bars Inn was coming off two record years on the books when the pandemic hit last spring. The year-round luxury resort, also a popular wedding and conference destination, employs more than 600 people. Due to state order, the inn was closed from March 22 to June 8. Weddings (typically 60-100 a summer), and conferences were either canceled or postponed to 2021.
CBI spent that long closure devising health and safety policies for employees and guests, reconfiguring dining areas to comply with social distancing and instituting sanitization measures. The inn adheres to state and CDC guidelines to ensure safety of guests, who are given upon arrival a Well Being Kit containing a face mask, hand sanitizer and a card explaining CBI’s policy and safety measures. Guests have the option for curbside check in instead of checking in at the reception desk.
“Obviously the pandemic has definitely affected the travel and hospitality industry but 2020 turned out better than expected,” said Gary Thurlander, managing director, who also sits on the Cape Cod Chamber board and is active in regional and national hospitality associations. “When we were able to open, we had 160 guests the first day and it never stopped.” He chalked that up to pent-up demand from vacationers who were forced to stay home for months. December room revenue was up by $150,000. Room service became another dining “outlet” rather than a dining option, he noted.
Improvements made this year focus on the outdoors. The half-mile long beach in front of the resort has been replenished with new sand; new furniture and pool and beach cabanas have been added.
“There’s limited places where people can travel and stay, due to restrictions imposed by states, and the Cape being within driving distance of Boston, Worcester, Providence and even New York, is a plus for us,” said Thurlander. “We feel 2021 could be an extraordinary year for the leisure industry.”
Orleans Chamber of Commerce also reports a surge in summer bookings.
“Our businesses pivoted their practices quickly to respond to the governor’s requirements in the summer of 2020 and using lessons from last year, many are already projecting and deciding what they will do for the summer of 2021,” said Noelle Pina, executive director of Orleans Chamber of Commerce. “Most of our lodging is provided by vacation rentals which are already busy for the 2021 season. Our inn properties were mostly able to rebound in 2020 and are poised to continue providing world class service in 2021.”
On the Mid-Cape, 2020 ended up being a strong summer for The Davenport Companies, which owns five Red Jacket resorts in the town of Yarmouth as well as a golf course. Lodging options include rooms in inns and cottages with private beaches on Lewis Bay and Nantucket Sound.
“The demand is very high for 2021,” said Matt Pitta, communications director. “There’s a tremendous amount of bookings and interest already. People are especially interested in multi-unit types of properties to bring the whole family together and we have plenty of options. One of the big things we heard from guests last year is they were able to enjoy the beach, with plenty of room to spare.”
The Davenport Companies also took advantage of the spring shutdown last year to institute cleaning and sanitization measures and install new equipment to ensure health and safety for guests.
Plymouth: Cautious Optimism
As on Cape Cod, tourism is the top industry in Plymouth, but despite investing in additional training for employees, hiring additional staff and increasing inventory in preparation for the influx of visitors last summer, the hospitality industry didn’t see the boom in business that Cape Cod did.
“I am not surprised Cape Cod had a great season. It was a great escape for many people in the urban areas,” said Lea Filson, executive director of See Plymouth and the Plymouth County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Here in Plymouth, we had mostly day-trippers but still a depressed season. We expect the pent-up demand crowd in the 2022 season. The data and metrics we watch tell us business in 2021 will start late and continue to be down as much as 45 percent until around August, then will begin to skew upward.”
Plymouth Area Chamber’s Naples characterised the summer as just “OK, certainly not their typical year or the year we had hoped for and restaurants were dealt with so many challenges and had to make large investments for outdoor seating, plexiglass and PPE before they could even start ringing the register. The obvious restrictions mandated were tough on the restaurants, the lack of alcohol sales certainly hit their bottom line, but they adapted, got very creative and are hanging on. As of recent, the occupancy guidelines absolutely killed their business the past few weeks. However, they are the most resilient, hard-working people I have ever met and determined to make it work.”
Plymouth saw very few closures, Naples said: three restaurants, one bakery and one retailer and many others temporarily closed their doors or have adjusted scheduling and/or shifted their focus to take out with curbside pickup, etc. Plymouth’s tourist season ended last year on Nov. 31 and hotels and tours were down between 60 percent and 80 percent.
As to lodging this year, hotels still open (most are seasonal) are averaging 60 percent to 70 of normal business.
“In spite of the pandemic, we are very optimistic about our tourism future in Plymouth County,” said Filson. “There were many infrastructure improvements to the town of Plymouth in anticipation of 2020, all improvements that will benefit us for years to come. We offer all the things important for COVID recovery – outdoor walking, dining, open space, beautiful scenery, and great food and attractions. They will only improve as we work our way through this.”