Too Much Room at the Inn

The COVID-19 data on the hospitality industry is dire, catastrophic, really, with $800 million lost so far since the pandemic reached New Hampshire; roughly half of the industry’s 70,000 employees have been laid off or furloughed, according to New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association head, Mike Somers.

Even with a four-phased approach for lodging and restaurants created by the governor’s reopening task force that began with outdoor dining at restaurants May 11, most statewide events and stays at hotels, inns and Airbnbs have been canceled at least through the fall. When restaurants can reopen, it’s at 50% capacity, which could be even worse because fixed costs may be the same, but income is reduced.

The federal Paycheck Protection Program funding to inject money into the tourist economy only covers payroll, rent and utilities for eight weeks and not such costs as insurance and property taxes, and for banks to forgive these loans, workers need to come back to work before they are needed. For many weeks hotels have been restricted to essential workers and no tourists.

Yet, there are bright spots locally in the form of owners of establishments who have weathered the storm — some who have even thrived — with forward-thinking.

PIVOTING ON THE FARM

Sarah Heffron, owner and operator of Mayfair Farm in Harrisville, New Hampshire, with her partner, Craig Thompson, had an almost completely-booked 2020 season before the pandemic hit. About two-thirds of the couple’s business comes from weddings — the farm is the venue, and Heffron also makes the food and wedding cakes. They also host other events and cater farm-to-table gatherings. The farm cottage also serves as an Airbnb.

A month and a half later, Heffron estimates they will lose at least half and up to 100% of their events, and they’ve already lost several months of Airbnb bookings with no reopening date in sight.

They are applying deposits from this year to any open 2021 dates with no penalties or change fees. It’s going smoothly so far, says Heffron, but luckily they hadn’t booked up next year, so dates are free for rescheduling events.

In the meantime, Heffron adds, she is grateful that the farm has other enterprises to help offset the impact of COVID-19 on their overall business.

“We’re working nonstop cooking and filling orders,” she says. “We’re just trying to do as much as we can now to help feed those near us who prefer to stay out of the big stores. We hope this becomes a new and lasting way people choose to shop.”

Still, once things start to reopen and a more “normal” life resumes, she went on, they will still look back on a loss of the catering business that sees their farm through financially year-to-year.

While the farm store is closed, the pair continue to serve pick-up customers who make preorders and at designated times.

“We have seen a surge in farm store sales,” says Heffron. “I think we all realize the more we can get from our community, the better. It’s better quality, it’s better for the farmers to sell retail, it’s better for the local economy, and it’s better for the planet.”

In so doing, customers support the farm that, in turn, accommodates guests for their special events.

The most loyal and longstanding Mayfair Farm customers are driving to pick up orders from Peterborough or Keene and stocking up, says Heffron. Summer customers who live in Maryland and California and New York are sending out gifts or mail ordering maple syrup. Those staying at their summer homes are turning to the farm as their local grocery store.

Her advice to consumers is ever-poignant now: “I’d say shop at your local farm as often as you can — and as if they won’t be there tomorrow if you don’t,” she says. “Farming is a profession and vocation that is always in danger. It’s a high-risk, low-reward venture with terrible margins.”

ON THE SQUARE: PANDEMIC READY

Luca Paris, owner of Luca’s Mediterranean Cafe in downtown Keene, says he “hit the ground running” in mid-March when the governor’s mandate meant he had to close his dining room until further notice.

“Our approach was to keep everybody working because you don’t know what will happen,” he says. “I did my research. My staff and I were wearing face masks before it was thought of as a necessity. Why wait to have someone tell you to do it? It shows people you care.”

Not only did Paris ramp up his takeout menu by bringing back favorite dishes and lowering some prices (including adding $10 pasta bowls) and adding delivery service, he promoted what he was doing nonstop on social media.

“I was shocked at how easy it was to adapt,” he says. “There’s been excitement in our brand and the service we offer. People were coming out in the beginning to support local restaurants, but they now want to ‘go out’ once a week to eat.”

In turn, Paris has bought to-go meals for himself and his staff at several other local restaurants to continue to support them during a financially difficult time. He and his staff have also done their own delivery rather than use a third-party service, such as DoorDash, so they can receive the gratuity.

“We have a responsibility,” he says. “Compared to what we were before, it’s hard to say we’ve been successful, but we feel good about how we have approached this situation. It’s not about making a profit. We’re now driven by serving the community responsibly and safely, and by creating employment for a team who wants to work.”

He is still determining what dining room service will look like when the restaurant reopens: whether there will be fewer tables in the dining room and if they will use single-use menus, plates and utensils.

“I’m training my staff to be set up and ready to go,” he says, referring to his outdoor seating on the sidewalk that will resume in May. “We’ll see how it goes and make adjustments.”

BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF THE REGION

Eric Lorimer, of the Monadnock Travel Council, told The Business Journal in late 2019 that the statewide occupancy rate was already down 3%. However, there was a promising increase in the number of visitors taking day trips.

But due to the pandemic, a lot of the smaller bed and breakfasts closed temporarily, he says, some not reopening until summer of 2021.

“There’s so much uncertainty, and things have changed radically from week to week and day to day,” he says.

Lorimer, also the owner of the Jack Daniels Motor Inn in Peterborough with his wife, Pam, had to cancel the Travel Council’s annual fundraiser, the Maple Madness Dinner at the Inn at East Hill Farm in Troy.

He had to cancel his motel reservations through May and furlough his staff but plans to reopen in May.

“Each room (at the motor inn) has a door to the outside, and there are no interior hallways,” he notes, adding that he’d allowed contractors to continue to stay while they work on ongoing projects.

“We’ve changed our cleaning, check-in, and operating procedures,” Lorimer says. “We’re continuing to adjust based on new information.”

There has been a lot of talk in the hospitality industry about what reopening will look like with new public health concerns.

“It will be a slow rise,” he notes. “People will be cautious and will have less discretionary income.” 

Nicole Colson writes from Swanzey, New Hampshire.