GAYLORD — The lodging industry appears to be on the comeback in the month since Northern Michigan began to reopen its economy.
Two businesses in the Gaylord area — Heart Lake Cottages and Treetops Resort — are reporting results that, while down from year ago levels, indicate the sector is regaining its footing after virtually closing the doors during the stay-at-home order.
Thom and Cindy Bencin operate Heart Lake Cottages and say they have been busy since Memorial Day weekend and are at about 60 percent of occupancy. Cindy Bencin believes that a change in policy designed to address consumer unease after the lockdown has helped to bolster business.
“In the summertime we used to require folks to stay from Saturday to Saturday or a week,” said Bencin. “Due to COVID-19, we now have a three-night minimum as I think people were nervous about traveling and making financial commitments.”
The summer season is crucial for the business.
“About 70 percent of our revenue comes from June through September,” Bencin said. “My husband and I are the only employees so we didn’t qualify for any emergency funding like PPP (Paycheck Protection Program). So we really need the summer to be good to stay in business.”
Bencin said bookings for the remainder of the summer are on track “for us to be about 70-80 percent full. I spent a lot of time doing marketing through Facebook.”
The Bencins rent out individual cottages rather than rooms in a building like a traditional hotel or motel. Cindy Bencin believes that gives Heart Lake Cottages an advantage in the reopening.
“That is one of the things we emphasize to our guests,” she said. “We don’t have a lobby or hallways. What we do have is a lake and lots of outdoor space so folks can stay separated from each other.
“We have made sure that everyone has their own outdoor barbecue so no one has to share cooking spaces,” Bencin added.
Barry Owens has been the general manager at Treetops for 10 years, and he said bookings since Memorial Day weekend have been good and continue to grow.
“We are not at last year’s levels, but at about 65 percent, we are getting there,” he said.
While the summer season is important for Treetops, Owens said winter has developed into a solid revenue generator for the resort.
“Most of our bookings are coming from tourists,” Owens said. “There is some business stuff out there, but most of that part of the business has not come back yet, especially meetings.”
Owens said that meetings and conferences are usually a big part of Treetops’ revenue, but that segment is struggling as corporations, associations and government have been slow to book dates because of the virus.
Treetops has carefully followed all of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Owens noted.
“Our housekeeping and building maintenance staffs did a great job of keeping our facilities clean, especially high touch-point areas,” he said.
“We hope to get close to last year’s levels as far as reservations, room nights and golf rounds for July, August and September,” he said. “We are already starting to see reservations for winter.”
Jeffery Elsworth, associate professor of hospitality business entrepreneurship at the Broad College of Business at Michigan State University, said resort-type lodging will probably recover quicker than the typical transient lodging venues.
“The resorts have history on their side. They have many guests who are regular visitors to the resorts and the traditional vacation areas of Michigan,” he said.
“People are beginning to make plans for later in the summer. People do have a need to get out of the house and get back to a more normal definition of vacationing. This might actually be a good thing for Northern Michigan with its traditional attraction to Chicago and downstate Michigan visitors,” Elsworth said.
“The conversations I’ve had with a few Mackinac Island operators have been positive. Although their season will begin later than they would like, the reservations and demand seems to be positive and trending up as they progress through the summer,” he added.