What Month Is It? Pandemic Scrambles the Travel Calendar

For classic summer destinations such as New York’s Hamptons, Nantucket, Mass., and Saugatuck, Mich., business was surprisingly brisk in late summer as travelers sought outdoor diversions at a safe and healthy distance.

Now, during back-to-school season, with families once again looking at the prospects of remote learning and working from home, many summer resorts are hoping to stretch the season into fall. The appeal of autumn activities is, they hope, an irresistible incentive.

“There’s a term out here, Tumbleweed Tuesday, when everyone leaves after Labor Day,” said Kristen Jarnagin, the president and chief executive of the tourism agency Discover Long Island, on New York’s Long Island, a few days before the New York City school system delayed its start. “We don’t anticipate experiencing that this year.”

According to the travel marketing firm MMGY Global, in the seventh instance of an ongoing survey of 1,200 American adults on their travel intentions, 61 percent said they were likely to take a domestic trip in the next six months. The firm uses the term “stretch season” to describe the extended interest in fall travel.

“People are looking to extend their summer or, if they don’t have children going back to school, to come out here and operate from Nantucket,” said Jason Curtis, the general manager of the Jared Coffin House, a 48-room inn on Nantucket Island, where reservations are trending stronger and longer — four or five days on average versus the normal two to three — for fall.

Many resorts are repositioning themselves for long-term stays. A week after offering roughly half of its 67 rooms at Baron’s Cove in Sag Harbor, N.Y., for rent from Oct. 12 to April 1 at $14,000, the owners, Cape Resorts, said they were nearly sold out. The company is also offering four-month terms from January to April at its rooms and rentals in Cape May, N.J., for $4,100.

For those with tight budgets, fall also represents value season, as lodging rates tend to decline after Labor Day. The home rental site Vrbo said rates in popular destinations like Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and Cape May, N.J., have fallen 20 percent on average from August through October compared to the busiest summer dates.

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“For weekends in fall, in some respects, it’s harder to get rooms than in summer,” said Reg Smith, the vice president for hotels with Stafford’s, which owns three hotels in the Petoskey, Mich., area.

Midweek stays offer value for those with flexible schedules. In mid-September, a room at Stafford’s Perry Hotel in Petoskey was recently listed at $169 versus $459 on a Saturday earlier in the month.

Wild Dunes Resort near Charleston, S.C., is offering seven nights for the price of five through December for stays through March 2021 (starting at $175 a night).

Even if more bargain hunters and flexible workers travel this fall, operators expect the numbers may be balanced by the potential decline in travel among those people over 60 who normally travel in fall, but are more vulnerable to Covid-19.

Some summer communities, too, are poised for a quieter-than-normal fall. Bar Harbor, Me., normally has its busiest months in September and October because of New England cruise ship calls, which will be absent this year while the cruise industry determines how to restart safely.

Resorts and home rental agencies are eager to attract more shoulder-season visitors with an array of amenities designed to assure workers and parents that they can maintain their productivity during work and school hours, while enjoying the great outdoors thereafter.

“We’re seeing a lot of hotels promoting how good their Wi-Fi is to appease those people working from home or people attending school digitally,” said Jim Paino, the executive director of the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce in Cannon Beach, Ore., a popular summer coastal town.

On the East Coast, Gurney’s Newport Resort & Marina in Newport, R.I., is offering a “Work from Hotel” package that includes breakfast, midday coffee, letterhead and a “business butler” to help with printing and scanning (from $379 a night).

In New Paltz, N.Y., the 151-year-old Mohonk Mountain House, which offers access to 85 miles of hiking trails on and around its 1,200 acres, is adapting its vintage rooms to suit mobile workers with its new “Work from Our House,” providing a power strip, printing services and a desk chair (from $656, including meals).

Some resorts are even offering remote educational programs. Beginning Nov. 1, the Coppola Family Hideaways, which include three resorts in Belize and Guatemala, will offer a daily slate of in-person classes for children staying at the properties. The classes, which will be adjusted based on the ages of guests, may include Spanish language, studying birds or medicinal plants as scientific subjects, and working on sustainability projects like mangrove restoration ($150 a day for three to four hours; room rates from $179).

The Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa and Marina in Cambridge, Md., has set up a classroom-style “learning room” for guest use and will provide a list of area tutors for hire on an hourly basis (rooms from $199).

“Instead of ‘How close is this to the beach?’ people are asking, ‘Do you have a spot where the kids can quietly work and how’s the Wi-Fi?’” said Chris Dekker, the general manager of Michigan properties for Vacasa, the home rental agency. “The amenities have shifted a lot.”

For others, the lack of connectivity is part of the appeal. Getaway, which operates 12 locations with tiny house cabins spaced for privacy in wooded areas outside of cities like New York and Austin, Texas, is following up the largely sold-out months of July and August with occupancy at 99 percent in September and October, versus 88 percent last year (rooms from $99).

“We don’t really get digital nomads,” said Jon Staff, the founder and chief executive of Getaway. “We kind of don’t want them either. We want them to take a break.”

Since the pandemic freed many workers from their offices and prevented children from attending school in person, flexible vacations — or what some call “flexcations” — have been on the rise. They often take the form of longer stays or midweek visits and have accounted for periods of sellouts this summer in the Hamptons.

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In a survey of 887 of its customers in July, Vrbo found 67 percent said they needed a “change of scenery” via a family vacation and half agreed that flexible school schedules offered more opportunity in how and when to go, including longer stays and visits during nonpeak seasons. Interest in one-week stays is up 25 percent over last year, according to searches on the site.

“When we reopened in June, travelers who booked well in advance kept their Thursday to Monday bookings, but we filled in the gaps with travelers who stayed Monday to Thursday because their plans were so flexible they could come and stay during the workweek,” said Mr. Dekker of Vacasa.

The portfolio includes 50 properties in the town of Saugatuck, Mich., on Lake Michigan where summer occupancy volleyed between 95 and 100 percent on weekends. The collection is at 75 percent capacity for some weekends already in September, when normally it would be 50 percent.

Travel accounts for 80 percent of the local economy in Cook County, Minn., home to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway. Officials there were bracing for summer business, its busiest season by far, to be down at least 50 percent because of the pandemic. Instead, it’s been up at least 10 percent over last year.

Linda Jurek, the executive director of Visit Cook County, a regional tourism group, said she expects the upswing to continue into fall. “Now that people are being forced to work from home,” she said, “they’re saying, ‘OK, but I can wake up from a home that overlooks Lake Superior.’”


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