By MARTI MAYNE, special to The Conway Daily Sun
CONWAY — Normally, on Columbus Day weekend, New Hampshire lodging properties, restaurants, attractions and shops would be packed with Canadians celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving, other international visitors and Fryeburg Fair-goers. Visitors from New England might traditionally plan to visit during a less busy time.
However, this Columbus Day, the leaf-peeping season has been quite different. This fall, the demographics of visitors is from within a six-or-less hour drive distance and has skewed younger.
This summer and fall, the valley has been packed with a new crowd — often first-time visitors seeking outdoor recreation in a place with scenic beauty, open-air offerings, plus the lodging, restaurants, attractions and tax-free shopping that make it an ideal vacation destination. Thus, business has still boomed throughout summer and fall, 2020.
Many businesses went into the fall foliage season with trepidation after fly-in visitors canceled reservations and a drought threatened fall colors for leaf-peepers.
With capacity limits in stores and attractions, and social distancing cutting back capacity at restaurants, there was concern that “they may not come.”
But by all accounts from members informally polled by the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, business has boomed both midweek and weekends.
“Neither drought nor changes in travel patterns for our traditional base put a damper on our fall season,” said Janice Crawford, executive director for the chamber.
“It’s testimony to the draw that the valley offers. ... Even Mother Nature didn’t let us down, offering a beautiful vista of color throughout the valley that continues even now," Crawford said.
In interviewing chamber members, it was clear that visitors arriving from a nearby market filled in for all those who couldn’t fly to the valley this fall.
Jen Kovach, co-owner of the Snowvillage Inn, said: “We found that guests planned their stay about three to four weeks in advance and most stayed two to four days. Primarily, Snowvillage Inn guests were from Southern New Hampshire, Boston area, Rhode Island and New York. All arrived wearing masks and followed our CDC guideline,” she added.
In looking back at fall 2020, Laura Lemieux, marketing and events director at Settlers Green, told the chamber: “Stores have been busy midweek and weekends throughout the summer and fall. We had a 100 percent increase in web traffic over last year for the month of September.
"While we do miss our Canadian shoppers, which account for 15-25 percent of our business on a given year, the increase in domestic travel has made up for it," Lemieux said. "As an open-air shopping center, we continue to feel we'll be a popular option as we now turn to holiday shopping after Columbus Day.”
In North Conway Village, Timothy W. Psaledakis, owner of Jewelry by Tim & Friends, had to furlough his staff when the pandemic hit, requiring him to do business by appointment only. But he said his customers understand, and even with the doors locked, business is comparable to last year. Psaledakis told the chamber that doing business in a one-on-one basis by appointment allows more focused and individualized attention.
Even direct-from-the-manufacturer sales have grown. Rob Nadler of Ragged Mountain Equipment in Intervale said the store’s retail business is up 40-50 percent over last year.
“While private label sewn product sales are down from last year, manufacturing and sales of Ragged Mountain products are way up,” Nadler said. He added he saw more customers from New York and New Jersey this fall than ever before.
Restaurants owners have been pleasantly surprised by the fall business.
“Fall foliage this year was better than expected. Our dinner counts were about even on the weekends, but up a bit midweek,” said Terry O’Brien, owner of the Red Parka Steakhouse and Pub in Glen.
“We have had a lot of couples visiting, which is par for the course for foliage. We had been concerned that a lot of our older guests would stay away, but the Baby Boomers have been out in force. We have also had more hikers than in past years of all ages,” O’Brien added.
Kovach said that at the Snowvillage Inn, “We could have seated two times as many folks each night for dinner at Max’s Restaurant and Pub. We even decided to open our restaurant on Sunday because the demand was so high."
Lodging properties also shared insight into the demand from closer-living guests. Perhaps it was Eleanor (Ellie) Koeppel, general manager and owner of The Wentworth, An Elegant Inn in Jackson, who summed up best not only the trends but the emotions of business owners locally.
“As businesses adapt, so do our guests,” Koeppel said. “Normally at this time, my hotel would be full of visitors from all over the world here to view our famous foliage. I worried about what the foliage season would bring, but soon my worries were put to rest when the domestic travelers took their place.
"The other thing that keeps me optimistic about our industry and our country is the level of support from our core customers," Koeppel continued. "Instead of their usual one or two visits a year, we are welcoming many of them once a month. New England is where they feel safe, and in particular Jackson and The Wentworth Hotel."
With tax-free shopping and programs like Bring A Friend at Settlers Green and the White Mountains 100-Mile Challenge encouraging visitors to explore the region, late fall and early winter are poised to continue to welcome visitors from New England and mid-Atlantic states seeking a fine outdoor refuge.
For more information on planning a vacation to the Mount Washington Valley, go to mtwashingtonvalley.org.
Marti Mayne is public relations manager for the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce.