For most in the U.S. hospitality and tourism sectors, 2020 was a year to forget.
But for some uniquely positioned properties and destinations, it turned out to be one of their best years ever.
“June, surprisingly, was almost a normal month for us, and we have had record-setting month after record-setting month since July,” said Ben Wilder, tourism development manager for the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.
Located in western North Carolina, Haywood County has seen visitation surge throughout the Covid-19 crisis, as domestic vacationers seek out drive-to destinations that offer opportunities to social distance and explore the great outdoors. A portion of the county is in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a hot spot for scenic hiking, fishing, skiing and other activities.
According to Wilder, an outsize number of the county’s recent visitors have hailed from the East Coast, including markets like New York and Washington, with many travelers showing a strong preference for stand-alone, home-like accommodations.
“Many of these people have been working remotely and have been looking for a break,” added Wilder. “We have not had a cabin or Vrbo-type of rental available for some time now.”
The North Carolina Smokies are no outlier — other destinations have found it easy to lure U.S. travelers looking for a temporary escape from the stressors of pandemic-era life.
In rural Farmington in Fayette County, Pa., the sprawling, 2,000-acre resort Nemacolin has similarly enjoyed a boom in business. Although the property opted to temporarily take some guestrooms offline to avoid crowding — going from 323 keys to around 214 — Nemacolin enjoyed what Chris Baran, the resort’s vice president of sales and marketing, deemed “one of its best years, occupancy-wise.”
“Nemacolin has been here since 1987, and it’s always had a very, very strong drive market. We saw that drive market really expand in 2020 beyond the typical two to four hours to markets six to eight hours away,” said Baran, citing an uptick in guests driving in from as far afield as Charlotte and Chicago.
Baran credited the four-season resort’s appeal in part to its “safe, oasis-like isolation” as well as its vast array of outdoor activities, including dog-sledding, skiing, archery, fly-fishing, shooting instruction, horseback riding and more.
Those elements also captured the attention of the producers of ABC’s reality TV series “The Bachelor,” who selected Nemacolin to serve as the setting for their 25th season, filmed this past fall. The dating competition show committed to a full buyout of the property from mid-September through late November, creating a quarantine “bubble” for its cast — including its star, bachelor Matt James — and crew.
The season premiered on Jan. 4 and will run through mid-March.
“This was, obviously, a double win for us,” Baran said. “Not only did it help us keep our staff fully employed and reenergized in our shoulder season, but it’s also, basically, a 10-week, nationwide infomercial, giving us the ability to showcase our resort from coast to coast every Monday for two hours.”
It wasn’t the property’s first experience with “The Bachelor” franchise. In 2016, Nemacolin was featured as part of a single episode, which Baran said resulted in an immediate booking of 5,000 room nights.
“This time, they filmed all 32 dates on property,” said Baran. “So we’re expecting a pretty big bookings surge.”
Like Nemacolin, boutique player Wylder Hotels has similarly benefited from a more off-the-beaten-path footprint.
The group’s Wylder Tilghman Island, a 9-acre, waterfront resort on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, sold out every weekend through the summer and fall, reported John Flannigan, Wylder Hotels founder and CEO.
“It’s a little island, with only around 800 people, so I think people feel safe there,” said Flannigan, adding that the property has proven quite popular with New Yorkers, in particular.
Wylder Hotels’ Wylder Hope Valley offshoot, which opened this past June in California’s Sierra Nevada, has also sold out consistently since its debut. Offering guests access to on-site hiking, mountain biking and snowshoeing, the property has also generated buzz with its diverse selection of socially distanced accommodations, which span everything from stand-alone cabins and yurts to a repurposed, vintage Spartan trailer.
“The majority of the clientele is from the Bay Area, Sacramento, Reno and Northern California,” said Flannigan. “When we opened, we got a lot of folks who maybe were planning to go to Cabo or Hawaii but obviously chose to do something closer to home. I think we got a lot of new customers who just weren’t originally thinking about a mountain resort four hours from their house, but then they got there, they realized, ‘Oh, this is rad.’”
That sense of local discovery has similarly boosted business for boutique player Foster Supply Hospitality, which operates five independent hotels as well as several restaurants throughout the Catskills. Led by co-founders Sims Foster and Kirsten Harlow Foster, the group opened its first concept, the 14-room Arnold House, in Livingston Manor, N.Y., in 2014.
“This past year, we were very happy to see a lot of our regulars, but we also saw a lot of new faces,” said Sims Foster. “I definitely think there were some people that traded a vacation overseas to come to the Catskills, and now, hopefully, we’ll continue to be in their travel arsenal.”
Although the loss of event business was a setback for Foster Supply Hospitality, strong leisure travel demand has helped to counter that impact, with the company reporting sold-out weekends across its portfolio from summer through fall as well as an increase in both midweek bookings and longer stays.
“We did see a change in patterns,” Foster said. “Typically, two-night stays are the majority of our bookings. But we were seeing more and more people staying three, four, five nights.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Dennis Law, a retired surgeon and hospitality entrepreneur, predicts that some pandemic-era shifts — most notably, a desire to escape crowded cities and get back in touch with Mother Nature — will linger long after the threat of Covid-19 is mitigated.
“Once you get used to not being in a city, staying at five-star city hotels and shopping at the Neiman Marcus next door, it opens you up to a new kind of luxury,” Law said. “There’s certainly a luxury around being able to ride horses and rock climb and engage in firearm sports without anyone else around. It’s a type of enjoyment and freedom that you won’t find staying at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago.”
Law is preparing to open Canyon Madness Ranch, a 14,000-acre resort in remote northeastern New Mexico, located roughly two hours from Santa Fe and three-and-a-half hours from the state’s largest airport, Albuquerque.
Scheduled to open in April, the ranch will offer a variety of equestrian activities, sports shooting, archery, hiking, river kayaking, fishing, all-terrain-vehicle rides and rock climbing. The property’s Teepee Lodge will house just eight suites, with initial opening rates starting at around $3,500 per person, per week, inclusive of activities, food, beer, wine and sake.
“Our inventory and number of guests is low, which allows us to provide much more personal care and attention,” Law said.
Indeed, being both small and situated in a rural market has appeared to be something of a winning mix throughout the pandemic. For Foster Supply Hospitality, the model has proven especially successful, and the group is planning to expand with two new hotels later this year, including a property in Beach Wood, Pa., this spring and another opening in Neversink, N.Y., in late winter 2021.
“There are people in the development world who have always stuck their noses up at anything less than a hundred keys,” Foster said. “Their philosophy always was, you can’t make money off of anything that small. But I think that’s going to change. The average daily rates are going to stay high at rural, full-service, small boutique hotels, and I do wonder if more institutional hospitality investors will start taking a closer look at some of these projects that they may have automatically passed on before because it wasn’t, say, 300 keys on 50th and Lex” in New York.