CONWAY — Whether it’s hanging out in an RV at a secluded campsite, floating on a pontoon boat on a lake, paddling a kayak down a river or riding an ATV through the woods, when it comes to social distancing, there’s no better place to go than the great outdoors.
This summer, more than usual, outside is where it’s at, as everyone who had been forced indoors by the pandemic this past spring is now part of a legion that could best be called “The Outsiders.”
Mother Nature is what places like the Mount Washington Valley have long offered to the rest of the world. And with our clean mountain air and plenty of room to recreate, we’re hot this year.
That increased popularity, however, brings challenges. Proving there can be too much of a good thing, local suppliers of recreational equipment have been hard-pressed to keep up with the demand for rentals and sales.
Many factories that make the ATVs, RVs, canoes and kayaks that everybody wants had to shut down in the early days of the pandemic, and that has created a perfect storm of increased demand.
Finding employees also remains a major challenge for tourism-related businesses, including local outfitters.
Many longtime retailers say it’s unprecedented.
“I’m in my 50th year of owning my boat shop, and I have never seen anything like it,” Barry Rollins of Wards Boat Shop of Center Ossipee, said recently.
“A couple of months ago, I had 100 new units (boats) on the ground along with some used inventory. I now have one boat for sale, and my showroom is empty, although I have put some water toys in there just to make it look like we’re open.
“I am supposed to have a fresh shipment of new 2021 craft next week, and I expect that to move fast. People are coming in one day and looking at a boat and coming back the next day and buying it,” he said.
Rollins says he sells pontoon boats, fishing boats and rowboats.
He said there’s no question that the pandemic has driven sales, with new boat prices starting at $27,000 and going as high as $100,000, though the average is about $45,000.
“People have been cooped up for months, and they want safe ways to social distance, and there’s no better place for social distancing than on the lake,” Rollins said.
His comments were echoed by other ATV and jet-ski dealers.
Mike Petell of Profile Powersports of Albany said he sold his entire inventory of jet skis by mid-June and off-road products (ATVs, side-by-sides and dirt bikes) by the end of June. So he ordered more.
“We have been in business since 1996, and we have never seen the demand be this high, ever,” said Petell. “The supply chain is strained between the factories being shut down in spring and now you can’t get the product into the pipeline fast enough.”
David Marr of Town & Country Polaris of East Conway noted: “Anything that has wheels on it is selling like crazy.
“We have three ATVs and three Ranger side-by-sides in stock right now and typically we would have hundreds,” said Marr, grandson of late company founder John Marr.
Terry MacGillivray, owner of Northeast Snowmobile and ATVs of Gorham, said the company’s location at 177 Main St. near Jericho Mountain State Park attracts a steady influx of renters.
“I think we would be busy anyway, but there is no question that without other summer activities such as outdoor music and all, people are just looking for things to do.”
Further south, Barton’s Motorsports LLC of Tamworth sells ATVs, dirt bikes and trailers, and Big Moose RVs of Ossipee offers RV and boat sales, service, camper rentals and retail.
“We are having a hard time keeping product in stock,” said Alisa Barton, who has owned Barton’s Motorsports with husband Dale since 2008.
“Everybody was off from work, and kids were home from school, so kids’ machines were in demand, and then the factories were shut down. So, we are just starting to get product,” she said.
“We had the recession, which was a challenge, but never anything like this,” she added.
Big Moose’s marketing director, Michele Cole, speaking on behalf of owner Mike Stevens, agreed that camper rentals and RV sales (new and used) have been way up this year, once Gov. Chris Sununu lifted his restrictions on campgrounds in May.
“Camper sales and rentals are blowing up. We’ve had a lot of first-time buyers, mostly due to COVID-19, I would say,” said Cole. “We sell new and used RVs. We also offer financing and extended warranties,” she said.
In addition, they do camper rental delivery, “which takes care of a lot of the hassle,” said Cole.
“The COVID has definitely brought families together who are looking for ways to enjoy the outdoors through camping,” she said.
Likewise, Craig and Sharon Hill of Hill’s RVs of Redstone report sales and service for their fleet of Winnebagos “has been better than the last few years.”
“People are nervous about flying or staying in hotels, so that has boosted our sales,” said Craig.
According to Sharon: “We have always said about RVs that they are great because you sleep in your own bed every night and cook in your own kitchen, and when you want to take a nap, you’re not at the mercy of anyone. Many of the higher end models have showers. So you really are fully self-contained.”
The Hills say they are also seeing people 55 and older who want to go and see their family in other parts of the country and are using their RVs as a launch pad to travel and visit loved ones.
Sharon estimated that to get into a new RV, you pay anywhere from about $20,000 to $100,000 and up.
So once you have that new RV, you simply drive over to the local campground, right?
Wrong. Advance reservations are key, say local operators along with industry officials.
“We have a lot to offer in New Hampshire with our lakes, rivers and mountains, especially up your way in Mount Washington Valley,” said Jeremy Sprince, executive director of the New Hampshire Campground Owners Association of Epsom, which represents 125 different campgrounds throughout the state, including such local campgrounds as Glen Ellis (recently rechristened Jellystone Park Glen Ellis), the Beach, Eastern Slope and Saco River Campground.
“Some campgrounds are operating by choice at less than 100 percent, at maybe 90 percent capacity, whatever they are comfortable with,” said Sprince, who said although the season was delayed by state guidelines, most have had such strong seasons in July and early August that they are rebounding.
“The majority of the sites in our campgrounds are larger than what the state requires anyway, so camping is one of the safest things to do with your family,” said Sprince. “We are also seeing a lot of people not taking vacations away from New England, so many are newcomers to camping.”
Michelle Rober, general manager of the 78-acre Jellystone Park Glen Ellis in Glen — which was sold last September by the Goff family to Northgate Resorts of Grand Rapids, Mich., also owners of Ossipee Lake’s Westward Shores — says business is always good at the family campground and this season is no different.
“We are packed, like we are every year,” Rober said, though she drew a distinction between what is happening at popular spots like Diana’s Baths and what happens at the campground.
“The difference is that we can control our numbers,” said Rober. “Everyone has to have a reservation, and in that registration process, everyone is informed of our camp rules, such as wearing a mask during check-in (or at the campground store).
“New Hampshire is ‘Live Free or Die’ but it’s also the rule of masks and personal responsibility,” Rober explained. “We to the best of our ability downplay the exposure to risk as much as possible. We maintain social distancing between campsites.”
Dianne Battles, general manager of Danforth Bay Camping & RV Resort in Freedom, said after a slow start this spring, things have been strong.
“Reservations were down for spring due to restrictions, but numbers are normal now and we are booked almost 100 percent for the summer,” she said.
“Our reservation office remains very busy with campers trying to reserve an RV site, tent site or cabin,” she said, “and many of those calling are new to Danforth Bay. We’re finding they’ve purchased RVs this year with the intention of being able to vacation in their own units.
“Some of our regular campers decided not to come this year, as they know how busy we are, but the majority rebooked and were very happy that they didn’t lose a preferred site and dates they’ve held for years,” Battles said.
She added that the fall is already booking heavier than usual, and inquiries for seasonal camping, regardless of the season, have been up.
Seasonal trailers for sale in The Bluffs (the portion of the resort exclusively for ages 50 and up) have been “selling like crazy as people are struggling to even find RVs to buy from dealers,” she said.
“The majority of campers are pleased with what we’re offering for amenities, services and activities this summer, and guests seem happy to be able to just get away and have what they feel is a safe vacation,” she said.
“I frequently hear, ‘We wanted to get back to Danforth to feel some normalcy.’ Guests are much more enthusiastic about outdoor activities — hiking, walking, swimming, boating, campfires, with many bringing in their own kayaks, etc., in secondary storage trailers,” said Battles.
New Hampshire Division of State Parks spokesman Brent Wucher said campgrounds started out by allowing only New Hampshire residents this spring, but then expanded to other New England states. They now require a 14-day quarantine for visitors from outside New England.
“So far, we have seen good social distancing, and that has allowed us to keep the parks and campgrounds open,” said Wucher, noting that the division operates 23 campgrounds and 93 locations statewide.
Colleen Mainville, public affairs specialist for the White Mountain National Forest, agreed that demand at the WMNF’s campgrounds has reached unprecedented levels.
“All 23 of our campgrounds are selling out, and they are filling up faster than ever,” said Mainville. “Being outside makes sense. But we stress for people to plan ahead, to plan safe and to pack out what they pack in.”
The demand extends to non-power sports as well, including canoes and kayaks and all kinds of bicycles.
Bob Tagliaferri, executive director of the Saco River Recreation Council, which represents local liveries on the Saco. He is also president/owner of Saco Bound Canoe and Kayak of North Conway and Center Conway.
“The demand has been remarkable,” said Tagliaferri. “There was a huge demand going back to late May and early June for the purchasing of kayaks — so much so that the industry has seen its worst out-of-stock situation ever.
“We normally would have 100 kayaks here, and now we only have a handful for sale and they tend to be of the higher end,” he said.
As for rentals, “the demand since Father’s Day has really been unbelievable and continues midweek, not just weekends. We have been selling out midweek,” said Tagliaferri.
He said he and other livery outfitters have devised new shuttle delivery practices, including following a driver to the takeout point, where he or she leaves his or her car, and then shuttling them back to the start, where they join their group and the entire party floats downriver to their destination (vehicle distances along the roads are shorter than the meandering Saco River).
Masks are required in all shuttle vehicles and in the showroom. Safe social distancing is always in effect.
Nate Harvey of Great Glen Trails, sister establishment of the Mount Washington Auto Road, thinks the great weather the valley has enjoyed recently has also played a big part in the increased demand, with 28 hot days of 30.
“Our guided kayaking tours have been booked out. But we keep our numbers very low, as our focus is not so much a big loud tubing run as it is to find wildlife (on trips to the Androscoggin),” with excursions limited to six passengers per each 12-passenger shuttle van.
Bike rentals at Great Glen have also been high, Harvey said.
“All aspects of outdoor business are being maximized,” said Harvey, noting he had heard that Fish and Game licenses are way up.
In fact, a check with Fish and Game’s Jay Martin confirmed that by the end of May, it experienced an increase of almost 21,000 in-state fishing license sales over last year and a 2,000-license increase for non-residents.
Ben Wilcox, president and general manager for Cranmore Mountain, says the resort’s new family-friendly Mountain Bike Park has exceeded expectations, as it is an activity perfectly aligned for this summer of social distancing.
“It’s the type of outdoor activity that people are looking for,” said Wilcox, noting that the resort also offers scenic chairlift rides that are socially distant. However, this year Cranmore has chosen not to open its ropes course. The start of the season was delayed for all local attractions, but business in the past few weeks has been strong, Wilcox said.
Dick Denney of Stan and Dan’s Sports says it has been an “epic” season for bike sales and rentals.
“It’s been awesome,” said Denney, a longtime veteran of the local ski and cycling retail scene. “It has been out of control, it is so busy.
“Everybody wants to get outside and bike, so now we are out of bikes to sell and we are not sure when we are going to get new ones in,” he said.
“Kids’ bikes, road bikes, mountain bikes, you name it — it has been all over the place, and now we are running into problems getting parts as the factories were shut down in China and wherever else they make them. Everyone is struggling now to get inventory back into their stores.”
Another downside of the recreation boom that is on every town official’s lips is the strain that the increased visitation has put on town services, especially in terms of trash cleanup.
Fish and Game’s Wucher noted that with more people hiking, there have been more rescues, also straining budgets. It has also altered the way parks operate.
“We’re operating Echo Lake day visits with advance day use reservations. In the past, people just came for day trips. Now, we ask them to make a reservation because we don’t want them coming all that way and not be able to get in,” he said.
The strong demand had led marketing spokespersons such as Charyl Reardon, executive director of the White Mountains Attractions Association of Woodstock, to enact public relations campaigns designed to heighten awareness of visitors’ responsibility to wear masks, practice safe social distancing and to respect local residents in following proper safety protocols given the pandemic.
Reardon — who represents 17 White Mountains attractions, including the Conway Scenic Railroad, Cranmore Mountain Resort, Mt. Washington Cog Railway and the Mt. Washington Auto Road — said her group recently produced a 60-second video for Vimeo and YouTube.
“It says, ‘Yes, we’re ready to welcome you, but we’re asking asking you to visit responsibly in a way that ensures safety for residents and communities,’” said Reardon, adding, “For those of us who market the White Mountains, we need to stress in our messages you need to come up and respect (our great outdoors) as though it were your own backyards. To me, that is very important.”