Joe’s Journal

Week 10: Coping with crisis

Ramblings from an old scribbler
Wed, 05/20/2020 - 7:00am

It is no secret that much of our region's economy depends on tourism, and no one knows this better than Scott Larson.

As the president of Midcoast Hospitality Group, Larson is the boss/owner of a group of premier resorts, including the Newagen Seaside Inn, the Linekin Bay Resort, Edgecomb's Waters Edge at Sheepscot Village, and the Russell House B&B.

He also heads Compass Rose Events, which puts on corporate hospitality events nationwide. “It is a tough time to be in the hospitality and event business,” he said in a phone interview.

As 2020 began, Larson said the business was doing just fine. His prospects were rolling along at a record-setting pace, especially as the idea of a Maine coastal wedding/vacation experience was taking off. Then America, and Maine, woke up to find themselves in a COVID-19 pandemic.

In the US., it began slowly, with the first case detected on Jan. 22. On March 1, there were 76. That jumped to almost 3,000 two weeks later, and by April 1 it was more than 200,000. At the end of last week, there were more than 1.3 million cases. About 90,000 have died.

Overnight, Larson's phones lit up.

“All of a sudden, everything came to a screaming halt. Our large corporate clients called. At first, they postponed events, and then they canceled them,” Larson said.

In March, Gov. Janet Mills ordered all restaurants closed and banned gatherings of more than 10 people. Then in early April, the governor told out of state visitors to stay home if they were ill, or if they were traveling from locations where the virus was very active. Those coming here were mandated to quarantine themselves for 14 days.

She also ordered the closure of all hotels and other lodging facilities.

Larson, and other businesses that depend on tourists, were faced with a decision. What to do? Plan for an opening that might not happen? Skip the season and ride out the pandemic? Lock the doors and walk away, or keep preparing for a season that may or may not happen?

“We decided to prepare to open, but frankly, some other businesses may not ever open again,” he said.

With the out of state tourist business hampered by the 14-day self-quarantine order, Larson and his staff looked at luring Mainers to visit Newagen. Taking a cue from a resort on Mount Desert Island, they sent out a Facebook post last Saturday, offering in-state residents a chance to stay at one of the state's premier coastal resorts for two nights. The price? Whatever they could afford.

“With out-of-state visitors not able to keep their June reservations, we find ourselves with lots of rooms available. We wanted to give Mainers a two-night (or more) staycation that fits the current family budget,” he said.

Once again, Larson's email pinged, and phones rang off the wall. “We got more than 500 inquiries and booked more than 300. The prices offered ranged from $10 to $400.”

“Some people said they had never been able to afford a vacation. Others said they just wanted to support us and wanted to help us keep the doors open,” said Abby Fessenden, the inn's general manager.

As the phones rang fast and furious, she said the story told by one customer touched her heart. That person suffered from a medical issue and had never been able to afford a vacation.

“At the same time, a longtime guest wanted us to take her deposit to give it as a gift to someone. We suggested she might donate it to that customer. She said, ‘perfect,’ and she paid for two nights and dinner for two. Then, she said she hoped to see us in September.”

The experiment worked so well, Larson & Co. decided to expand the offer to Linekin Bay Resort.

As for the rest of the season, Larson said they would have to see how it unfolds. He knows the season will be a gamble and knows it depends on the virus and the governor. “I understand the governor's mentality, but (unless the mandates are loosened), it will end many businesses in the state of Maine.”

As of the end of last week, Gov. Mills loosened some regulations and permitted hotels to accept out of state reservations as of June 1. But the 14-day quarantine remains in effect.

And that requirement is still a tough hurdle for businesses that depend on tourists to survive. “We will have to see how it unfolds,” said Larson. “We are in completely uncharted territory. It is a new world,” he said.

Stay well. Stay safe.