NISSWA, MINN. – There will be no throw pillows on the beds at Grand View Lodge resort this summer. No magazines on the coffee tables. No daily visits from housekeeping staff.
Before a new guest arrives, a team will sanitize every room with an electrostatic sprayer, lightly dousing toilets, sinks and even upholstered chairs and curtains with a disinfectant. It’s part of Grand View’s new effort to lure and assure travelers that they will be safe staying there amid a global pandemic.
“It’s the new hospitality,” said Mark Ronnei, Grand View’s general manager. “Maximum service with a minimum interface.”
COVID-19 has already cost Minnesota’s travel economy $2 billion, according to data from Tourism Economics, an international research company. Now, as the virus continues to spread and the burgeoning summer vacation season kicks off, many businesses dependent on tourist dollars are on edge.
With weddings delayed and corporate events postponed, downsized or canceled, resorts and other businesses are hoping to salvage whatever they can through local vacationers. Owners are devising new ways to ease concerns about the novel coronavirus — from enhanced cleaning methods to new activities that promote social distancing.
“There’s a lot of nervousness about what the summer will bring,” said John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota, the state’s tourism arm. With a short season typically keeping many afloat, “their survival depends on what’s going to happen over the next six months. We have to do everything we can to make them profitable or at least survive.”
The key, analysts say, will be making sure potential visitors feel the risk of exposure to the coronavirus is low.
“There is this pent-up demand that people want to get out, they want to explore,” Edman said. “But they want to be reassured that it’s safe.”
Nearly 70% of American travelers surveyed in early May said they planned to travel in the next six months, according to Ohio-based Longwoods International, a tourism market research company. First on the list for travel — when deemed OK to do so — is visiting friends and family by car. Second is leisure travel by car.
“Every state is kind of reopening at its own pace,” said Longwoods President Amir Eylon. “Many of those first regional getaways are going to be very regional drive trips. They might start off as day trips.”
That’s exactly what Ruthie and Chuck Finch have been doing this spring. The retired couple from Litchfield drove several hours to Duluth and Two Harbors last week on a day trip — as far as they could go round trip on one tank of gas.
“This is probably our favorite place to go,” Ruthie said after looking for Lake Superior ships in Duluth’s Canal Park. “It’s so pretty up here.”
Though the couple like to stay at a resort on the North Shore, they said they aren’t sure when they will feel comfortable doing that again.
Conversely, business owners in some tourist areas will be balancing their need for survival with locals’ wariness of outsiders coming in, fearing they may bring the virus with them. It’s a concern that has popped up in tourist communities around the world.
Travelers overall are showing more interest in uncrowded places — beaches, mountains, forests and lakes — where they feel they can have more control over their environment, analysts have learned. That’s promising for the North Star state.
“Minnesota has a lot of assets that fit well with this pandemic world,” said Erin Francis-Cummings, president of the travel market research firm Destination Analysts.
Resorts getting creative
Many family-owned resorts in Otter Tail County have relied on that love of nature to welcome back the same groups every year, said Nick Leonard, a resort owner and deputy county administrator who oversees economic development and tourism.
But some of those groups involve extended families from far-flung areas of the country, Leonard said, and reunions like that are less likely now.
Many resort owners are hoping to get half their normal business, Leonard said, though others are more optimistic.
The owners of Gunflint Lodge & Outfitters on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are counting on the yearning for expansive environments. After closing for five weeks during the stay-at-home order, John and Mindy Fredrikson said they believe families will be eager to relax in their resort cabins, far from virus stress.
“Where else would you want to be when the rest of the world is freaking out?” John Fredrikson said. “Up in the woods with a loon swimming by and Canada right across the lake.”
The Fredriksons added Wi-Fi to the cabins so guests can reach the front desk remotely instead of visiting in person. It’s just one of the ways they are trying to keep guests and staff safe, including more frequent cleaning of public spaces and equipment. Canoes and other camping gear for Boundary Waters trips are now sanitized. Riders on their zipline course will be able to buy their own leather gloves to apply brakes on the lines. And for the horseback rides they offer, manes will be covered with a washable cloth so that if one rider coughs or sneezes, the next rider isn’t endangered.
“There’s a lot of hoops to jump through, but we’re committed to doing it right,” Fredrikson said.
At Cragun’s Resort in the Brainerd Lakes Area, spots in the parking lot are now designated for drive-up check-in so arriving guests don’t have to worry about entering a possibly crowded lobby.
Lawn games are going to be rental-free for families to check out, General Manager Eric Peterson said as he looked over the resort’s expansive beach on Gull Lake. Ten additional fire pits have been added to the water’s edge so families can enjoy bonfires away from other guests.
“Our beaches and bonfires are open,” Peterson said. “We’re hoping the families and social business will come.”
Grand View will offer more bicycles and affordable boat rentals for families, as well as promote contact-free games like badminton and pickleball. The resort is also putting more umbrellas and heaters on outdoor dining spaces.
As information and statistics about the novel coronavirus keep changing, the differing rules and standards that inevitably follow make it hard to predict exactly what resorts will be allowed to offer over the course of the summer, managers said. When will indoor dining be allowed? What about swimming pools? Fitness centers?
“We have no way to plan, other than to keep planning,” Grand View Resort Manager Kevin Karau said. “We keep pivoting.”
Community in flux
It’s not just resorts and hotels that are working to ease tourist concerns.
Last week, a Brainerd Lakes Area group including local chambers of commerce, governments, hospitals and businesses launched a Lake Country Cares campaign using Paul Bunyan-themed messaging as part of a concerted effort to draw visitors to the region. It includes posters depicting plaid masks and social distancing measurements of two ax handles.
Participating businesses are encouraged to file their COVID safety plans with the campaign’s website, where anyone can see them. Businesses can choose to have the plans reviewed by the county health department. They also will get a poster, masks and other items to place around their stores to let customers know they are acting responsibly, said Matt Kilian, Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce president. “We’re hoping to send the message that the Brainerd Lakes Area is a safe place to be,” he said.
With many local businesses considered nonessential, and unemployment high, the campaign is important to lure tourists back and revive the local economy, Kilian said.
“I can’t understate the economic devastation that our small businesses are experiencing,” he said. “We have to relentlessly focus on customer safety, and that’s going to be the quickest way to recover.”
Many restaurant owners there and across the state were upset last week by Gov. Tim Walz’s announcement that starting June 1, they could open only to outdoor dining.
“Especially in tourism communities, some of the busiest times for restaurants are when it’s raining,” Kilian said. “When it rains, people want to hang out in the restaurants and at the bars.”
At Compliments, a boutique in downtown Nisswa that is typically open May through October, owner Lisa Omodt is limiting traffic to six people — far below the capacity allowed by law. She developed protocols for keeping customers safe — everything from keeping shipments of new clothes in their original packaging to quarantining clothing that customers try on but don’t buy. She places hand sanitizer at the door and makes gloves available, and she asks customers to wear masks.
Her store, one of many quaint shops where summer tourists typically roam, simply can’t afford to see visitors — and business — stay away.
“We have a short season,” she said. “I don’t think Nisswa would exist if we didn’t have tourism here.”