State lockdown results in lost business for wedding-related businesses

Tue, 05/12/2020 - 12:00pm

    In 2014, Ted and Jill Hugger became innkeepers when they bought the 28-room Cove Cod Inn in Edgecomb. The experience went so well, they expanded in 2018 by buying the 37-room Cedar Crest Inn in Camden. The hospitality business was booming in Maine, and especially along Vacationland’s coast whose scenic oceanfront scenes have drawn people from away for generations. And a big part of the Huggers’ business is derived from weddings. Ted Hugger estimates 60 percent of his revenue results from weddings in the Boothbay Region. And it seems the Huggers aren’t alone in capitalizing on coastal Maine weddings. According to a 2018 survey, Maine is a popular destination for weddings and tops the list of New England states. The Insider, an online research and lifestyle site, reported Maine hosted 9,706 weddings in 2018. A Marry ME study reported the average 2018 wedding costs ran $26,211. The survey also showed one third of Maine weddings united out-of-staters, which typically required a two or three-day stay.

    But in mid-March, the wedding industry came to an abrupt halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Innkeepers, like the Huggers, began receiving wedding-related cancellations for April and May. But the phone started to literally “ring off the hook,” according Ted Hugger, following Gov. Janet Mills’ April 3 executive order to require travelers, regardless of Maine residency, to self-quarantine for 14 days. Hugger believes the order is “crazy” because no one is going to visit Maine under those conditions. “After the order, reservations began dropping like flies. It’s unrealistic to expect someone to spend a couple of days in Maine, if they must spend 14 days quarantined,” he said.

    In 2019, Cod Cove Inn benefited from 28 weddings with one every weekend between June and October. This year is a different story. Prior to the pandemic, the inn had 25 wedding-related reservations, but it has since received 13 cancellations. Mills made her emergency proclamation in order to stop  COVID-19 from spreading further into Maine. As of May 11, the deadly disease registered 1.38 million cases nationwide and 81,539 deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control. “To slow the spread of this deadly virus and prevent our health care system from being overwhelmed, we must all do our part,” Mills said in an April 3 televised announcement. “I am mandating that anyone entering Maine self-quarantine for 14 days and abide by Maine’s Stay Healthy at Home Order. These actions will protect the health and safety of everyone.”

    For April, Cod Cove Inn’s sales receipts dropped by 94%, the typical result for innkeepers around the state, according to Hospitality Maine Director of Government Affairs Greg Dugal. All over Maine, inns and restaurants are struggling under the stay at home order. While restaurants can recoup some lost income through take-out orders, he said the lodging industry will struggle once the three biggest months arrive. Dugal estimated Maine’s lodging businesses produce 60 to 75% of their annual revenue by September. So the pandemic couldn’t be coming at a worse time for innkeepers. Dugal estimated the hospitality industry last year generated about $500 million in tax revenue. “If it’s extended then the state will be lucky to get half that,” he said. 

    Recently, the governor has given businesses a glimmer of hope. Mills announced May 7 Maine secured a “major expansion” of COVID-19 testing, partnering with Maine-based IDEXX Laboratories, Inc. The state will buy enough of the company's recently authorized COVID-19 testing kits to more than triple the state's testing capacity. Another announcement last week included loosening restrictions on 12 rural counties. Dugal is hoping this will lead to other less restrictive policies as the federal and state governments begin to understand the disease better. On June 1, Maine lodging will be open to residents. “Some businesses are saying ‘Can we open already’ and others may not be ready on June 1. I’m concerned that no matter when they open that significant damage has already occurred to the state’s economy,” he said.

    In balancing Maine’s physical and economic health, Mills on May 7 created an Economic Recovery Committee to develop recommendations to slow the decline of the state's economy while planning for COVID-19 long-term recovery. Hugger expects the panel to make recommendations in December, which he believes is too late for both big and small Maine businesses. “She appointed a 37-person committee to get back to us in December, but I’m circling the drain now,” he said. 

    Dugal believes the enhanced testing is a step in the right direction, but an immediate and better response to the economic calamity is needed. “I don’t think the tests are ideal, but at least it’s something. More needs to be done, and it has to happen soon because many of these businesses are deciding now whether to stay open for the season,” Dugal said.

    While some inns are considering closing due to the pandemic, others are finding ways to keep afloat. The Newagen Seaside Inn in Southport is looking to host Maine tourists with a unique offer. The inn is offering “Pay what you can” for June. General Manager Abby Fessenden found the idea while reading the Mount Desert Islander. Acadia Yurts in Southwest Harbor made the original offer after Mills lifted lodging restrictions. “I was reading my hometown paper and saw the advertisement. So I called them and asked if we could use it,” Fessenden said. So far, Newagen has generated 250 responses on Facebook. Fessenden believes 75 may turn into reservations. “For people wanting to take a vacation and who haven’t seen coastal Maine, this may be a great opportunity for them,” she said.

    But the pandemic has definitely taken a toll a one of the region’s most popular wedding venues. Newagen hosts nearly two dozen weddings per year. This year, the inn is working with clients to either reschedule or change the wedding format. “We have weddings with 150 to 200 guests so we’re trying to work around that to meet state pandemic requirements (no more than 49),” she said.

    Newagen is also reducing its summer staff from 50 to 10 and will only hire one international student worker. “It’s been an incredibly difficult time. We trying to come up with creative ideas to keep us going while looking ahead to the next year,” Fessenden said.