CONWAY — In true Yankee fashion, Mount Washington Valley businesses faced a decrease in travelers to the region and weather challenges with creative new protocols to promote safety while allowing outdoor recreation, dining, shopping and family fun over the Christmas and New Year’s vacation week.
An informal survey done by the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce showed mixed responses, from increases in business to “well down” over last year.
Retailers and some restaurants, for example, saw more local customers than in the past. Online marketing and sales for retailers and lodging, shifts to takeout and outside dining for restaurants, plus recreation by reservation for ski resorts were among new responses to the pandemic that paid off.
However, skiing and outdoor recreation were sectors particularly hard hit by the Christmas Day rainstorm, causing some resorts to close for a day or longer. But as temperatures dropped, they bounced back quickly, and skiers and riders made the best of the chance to be outside. Then on Jan. 1, a welcome snowstorm brought 8 or more inches of fluffy white stuff.
“Despite the little bit of snow, folks are making the best of it and having a great time here,” Lisa McCoy, events director at Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center told the chamber during the holiday week.
Becca Deschenes, director of marketing at Cranmore Mountain Resort, said: "We had some nice windows of snowmaking weather post-Christmas and were able to touch up some spots on open terrain, move on to new trails and expand our available terrain.”
Like other ski resorts in New Hampshire, Cranmore is limiting tickets for both tubing and skiing to allow for social distancing. However, with careful observation of spacing at lift lines and advance reservations indicating capacity, the resort is able to sell out tickets to maximize revenues, which was the case for Cranmore’s tubing park throughout the vacation week.
“There is definitely high demand for outdoor activities,” Deschenes said.
Lodging properties varied in their reports. Nick Panno, innkeeper at the Bernerhof Inn in Bartlett, said he was sold out every night Christmas Week through New Year's weekend and that bookings and revenue were up over last year.
Yet Christopher Bellis, co-owner/innkeeper at the Cranmore Inn, said revenues and room nights were down more than 75 percent during the Christmas Week. But they recovered to only a 20 percent loss in revenues over last year for the New Year’s Eve weekend.
“Christmas falling on a Friday interrupted normal weekend travel,” observed Bellis, among other reasons for losses this year including a fear of travel keeping people home and weather.
Jennifer Kovach, co-owner of the Snowvillage Inn, said room sales were down 45 percent over last year and restaurant sales down by about 30 percent. Yet, she said, "we noticed more couples staying longer. They were trying to distract themselves from missing large family gatherings. We had more couples for dinner than families."
Terry O’Brien, owner of the Red Parka Steakhouse and Pub in Glen, told the chamber, “Christmas vacation week was down 46 percent compared to last year. We did lose two nights during the week – one due to a propane leak and one due to an equipment malfunction. New Year’s Eve was down 56 percent.”
But she observed: “We had a lot of our regular ski people back plus many first timers – mostly from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Check averages were about the same. Most guests were very generous with gratuities.”
She added: “New Year’s Eve takeout was 16 percent of our sales.”
Retailers shared generally positive reports. Deb Jasien, owner of Fields of Ambrosia in North Conway, said the store was up 20 percent over this time last year, and up 15 percent for the year, crediting the fact she was one of the few sources for hand sanitizer in the area plus an increase in online sales.
Timothy Psaledakis, owner of Jewelry by Tim & Friends, said: "We are operating by appointment only -- folks come to us with a purpose, and we have more time to accomplish their requests. This resulted in our being able to accept and complete more high end projects.”
Rob Nadler of Ragged Mountain Equipment said: “Christmas week was great – 40 percent up over last year! New Year’s Eve weekend was the same as last year for sales due to less traffic on Saturday during the storm.”
Yet other retailers had mixed reports. “We were about 20 percent down for the week,” reported Laura Cummings of White Birch Books, “but December was a good month, so we'll take it, on the whole.”
Lisa Spadaccini, owner of It’s My Girlfriend’s Consignment Boutique at the Eastern Slope Inn, said Christmas and New Year’s weeks were down about 20 percent over last year.
“COVID and less travelers, especially from Canada and the UK, have definitely made a difference in our sales. Most of the people who visited us were from New England, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine and Rhode Island, and few from Florida," she said.
"It seemed that people were here to ski or take a sleigh rides,” she added.
In a newsletter to chamber members, Janice Crawford, executive director of the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, had a message filled with optimism for 2021.
“We will add our voice to those who are pleased to greet a new year and leave 2020 behind," she said. "I can already feel a more upbeat energy as the phone rings with ideas that have been put on hold due to COVID and events that are planned for a comeback or a 'first time ever' in 2021 are confirmed. Gov. Sununu expects that New Hampshire will open by Memorial Day of 2021, which is hopeful news to all of us wanting to get back to normal as fast and as safely as possible."
Crawford added: "Many factors go into this prediction such as vaccinations and continued adherence to mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing. Don’t let up just yet!”