A busier-than-expected summer has translated into a wildly successful fall season for North Shore destinations. And resort owners predict that trend should hold on as snow starts falling.
“We’re adding to our snowmobile fleet,” said John Fredrikson, co-owner of Gunflint Lodge. “We figure that the winter season is going to continue the business of people getting to the North Woods, social distancing and getting away from the cities.”
As travel bans lifted and vacations shifted toward drivable destinations, a huge number of Minnesotans trekked north to get some socially distant time outdoors this summer, many for the first time. Resorts are betting that will carry over into an interest in winter activities as the pandemic forces more folks indoors.
“We’re adding Boundary Waters guided ski-in and snowshoe-in trips this year,” said Gunflint Lodge co-owner Mindy Fredrikson. “People want to get out and explore the wilderness but may not be as comfortable doing it themselves.”
Already interest is high down the road at Bearskin Lodge, which is seeing a 300% increase in bookings through the end of October compared with last year. The lodge is adding virtual ski races and a remote ski-in cabin this year.
“All signs point to a very busy winter,” said owner Quinn McCloughan. “The last four years we’ve been skiing in November, and my prediction is if we got good early snow we’d have a good number of reservations.”
That’s a big change from most years, when skiers tended to cluster closer to the end of the year. Nordic skiing has already enjoyed a boost in recent years, McCloughan said, helping drive interest in his cross-country ski-focused resort.
Typically, North Shore bookings drop off after Labor Day — with an MEA weekend surge. But in this atypical year, with students often learning remotely and parents working that way, remote can mean home or perhaps from a cabin on the Gunflint Trail or at Lutsen.
“We have fiber internet installed at all our properties,” said Aaron Bosanko, marketing director for Odyssey Resorts, which include destinations like Larsmont Cottages, Grand Superior Lodge and Caribou Highlands. “Some travelers are tired of being cooped up and want to change their scenery while sitting in Zoom meetings.”
Caribou Highlands will have an ice-skating rink on site and sled dog puppies every weekend this winter in its bid to draw winter visitors. Calls have been flooding in and already bookings are above average for winter stays, Bosanko said.
“Everybody is seeing more advance demand than we’ve experienced in the past, and a good chunk of that is new guests who haven’t traveled to the area or haven’t traveled to the area in the winter before,” he said. “We’re just hopeful we can convince them it’s such a great time that they should come back again.”
Customers have been staying longer than average, and they’ve been keen to research what kind of pandemic preparations have been made at their destinations.
“A number of people want to get in the weeds about what you’re doing,” McCloughan said. “Which makes sense given how big a deal it is.”
At Bearskin Lodge, air purifiers will be added to cabins this winter and the main lodge will remain closed. Many cabin and resort owners implemented a bring-your-own-linens policy and keep rooms unoccupied for a day or more between guests.
“As a community we’ve been careful about how to manage it responsibly, and we feel very lucky folks have been wanting to come up to this part of the state,” John Fredrikson said.
With an influx of visitors to Grand Marais this summer, fears of importing the virus heightened tensions between residents and tourists. Early reports of trashed campgrounds and fights over masks tapered off as the state implemented rules and more visitors adapted, business owners say.
There have been just nine confirmed COVID-19 cases among Cook County’s 5,400 residents as of Tuesday.
Even with a surge in winter traffic, it likely won’t mirror a summer Saturday on the shore.
“It’s a much smaller number of people,” said Kjersti Vick, marketing manager with Visit Cook County. “That said, midweek is the time to be here — on Wednesday you can have ski slopes to yourself more than on a Saturday.”
Some forecasts call for a wet and cold winter, which would be welcome for the countless businesses that depend on it.
“We had phenomenal snow last year, and unfortunately had to shut down before we could take full advantage of it,” said Mindy Fredrikson. “We’re looking forward to having another good, snowy winter.”