For 2021 those in the tourism industry in Lake George were looking forward to recovering from 2020. Not because they had an unsuccessful tourism season in 2020, but because they were exhausted from a season where bookings and sales nearly topped previous record years, which they had to manage under severe conditions created by the pandemic. Their story is a lesson in how to succeed in tourism during a pandemic.
Lake George is a town named for the lake on which it sits in the Southern Adirondack Mountains of New York State. For generations of travelers, the area has been a popular vacation destination. In addition to Lake George, there are more than 20 lakes in the area and the Hudson River. The mountains and forests have always been of great interest to campers, hunters, hikers, and other nature lovers. With Fort William Henry on the southern shore of Lake George and Fort Ticonderoga to the north, the area is also popular with those interested in history. In recent years many innovative adventure, food, and cultural activities and festivals have been added to attract even more visitors.
Mid-March 2020, when “stay at home orders” were put into place, the region’s tourism businesses, preparing for their spring and summer seasons, were left wondering when and even if they would be able to open in time for the typically busy season. With many area residents employed by these businesses, a profitable summer season is crucial to the area’s survival.
Almost immediately, Lake George Chamber & CVB (Convention & Visitors Board) went into action to help its members and the community. “At first we went into ‘conservative mode’ where we didn’t spend any money to keep people employed,” says Executive Director Gina Mintzer. “We had to learn Zoom fast to keep communications going. We had to learn about hazard pay and COVID quarantine policy, a real challenge with new information coming from the state every day. We were getting information from all over. We then looked at: What information do we need to get out to our members? What are our partner organizations doing? We were sitting in on webinars every hour of the day, taking in the information, and then regurgitating it out to our members and the community. Then we’d get the calls, ‘What does this mean to me? Is my business going to be able to open?’” She adds, “If we didn’t have a ‘this year,’ we wouldn’t have a ‘next year.’”
As the State implements guidelines and requirements by region and county, the Chamber then started to work closely with Warren County and other regional bodies. This partnership provided information and support to the businesses and potential visitors to the area and, more importantly, advocated to get the region open to visitors as quickly as possible.
Key Actions Taken by Lake George Regional Chamber & CVB to Keep Lake George “In Business”
Quickly Became an Important Resource
The Chamber website and social media channels became the “go-to” resources for what was open, what services were available, and hours of operation with reminders to call and confirm because details were changing rapidly. They also provided information on grants, loans, and other financial support for businesses and employees, as well as resources to navigate other challenges faced like “going virtual” and “how to deal with patrons that refuse to wear a mask.”
Early on, a core group of hoteliers in the area, like the Holiday Inn Resort and Courtyard by Marriott, gathered information from their national and international headquarters on how to stay open safely and take in essential workers. As stocks of cleaning and PPE equipment were selling out locally, the group worked with their larger suppliers to ensure availability for themselves and other businesses in the area. A Facebook Group was used to keep people informed on what was available and where. “People came together to help everybody,” says Mintzer, “Then word spread about what we were doing here, and even businesses outside the area were reaching out to see how they could help.”
Established and Communicated Guidelines with Successful Public-Private Partnerships
In May 2020, the Chamber joined with the Warren County Lodging Association and other local Chambers of Commerce in conjunction with Warren County Tourism Department and government officials to establish a commission to develop specific guidelines and best practices for safely reopening Warren County. The guidelines helped businesses with direction on what they needed to do while also providing assurances to those considering visiting.
The Chamber also teamed with the Southern Adirondacks tourism region to establish Lake George Region / Southern Adirondacks Health & Safety Pledge to be taken by businesses that are willing to confirm that they “put safety at the top of their checklists as they follow procedures in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New York State Department of Health and regional guidance.”
The Village of Lake George hired a person to assist with COVID compliance – someone to go around to the businesses and check that their facilities and practices adhere to state guidelines. This inspector also helped businesses figure out ways to be compliant and remain open safely.
Got the Message Out
The Chamber and Warren County Tourism surveyed those on their mailing lists to gather information on what tourists would be looking for this year. They focused the message accordingly, heavily targeting audiences within a 70-mile radius of New York City. National publications like Inc. and Forbes covered the story of the region’s initiatives, while Lake George appeared on “best of” lists in Travel + Leisure, Vogue, Redbook, and USA Today.
According to Chandler Atkins, proprietor of Elms Waterfront Cottages in Lake Luzerne, most of his guests this summer came from New York City, “Overall we had the best season ever. Our cottages were sold out in June when we were given the go-ahead, and I turned approximately 5000 guests away due to lack of occupancy. We were 100% occupied for most of the summer and into the fall. Our rafting business was up 100%. When I quizzed guests on how they chose the location, they said ‘it was the Hamptons or Lake George.’”
Advocated for Earlier Re-Opening
It often benefits Lake George to be part of the state’s more populous “Capital District.” Still, during the pandemic, it meant that businesses couldn’t open as soon as in other tourism regions like Lake Placid in the “North Country” and the Finger Lakes in “Western New York.” Both are more rural areas with lower COVID cases, but neither were as proactive as Lake George in their initiatives to open and attract visitors.
“We could see that Lake Placid, etc. were going to be able to open up before us, and we focused on how we could get in with them. Politically we couldn’t succeed from the ‘union,’ but we knew we needed to do something for the survival of our region,” says Mintzer.
The Chamber/County partnership provided relevant statistics and facts to the State to successfully advocate to move through the re-opening phases more quickly. It most notably achieved success in progressing the area to outside dining with table service and then moving more rapidly through the next phases.
Proactively Worked with Events Organisers
Certain annual events are relied upon to bring travelers into the area, from May’s Americade motorcycle touring rally to September’s Adirondack Nationals Car Show. The biggest challenge was uncertainty: not knowing when businesses could open more fully or public events would be allowed, and if infection rates would stay down. Therefore the Chamber continually worked with businesses and event organizers to determine the likelihood of significant events going ahead with plans and back-ups until almost all needed to cancel or provide a virtual experience.
According to Americade organizer Christian Dutcher, “When we rescheduled Americade to July, I knew that it was a bit of a long shot. Attempting to create a safe event in the face of a global pandemic was a big challenge and would require numerous changes to ensure everyone’s well-being. The odds of it being financially worthwhile were near zero, but we wanted to give it a try for several reasons: We didn’t want to be yet another event that canceled in 2020 (there was already enough depressing news). We knew that our partners (vendors and the local community) needed every bit of help we could give them. And we didn’t want to interrupt the 37-year tradition of Americade.’’ As Americade draws motorcycle enthusiasts from across the United States, the New York State requirement for visitors from many states to quarantine for 14 days made it unfeasible for many to travel to attend the event, which in the end was canceled for 2020 but plans to come back strong in 2021.
Loyal fans of the Adirondack Nationals Car Show, which takes place each year on the weekend after Labor Day, decided that the event’s cancellation wasn’t going to stop them from coming to Lake George to show off their appreciation for classic sports cars. Over the weekend, all available lodging, restaurants, and shops were full of patrons, all at the allowed capacity.
Some annual events were able to continue. Lake George Arts Project’s summer Jazz on the Lake series moved online with the addition of discussions with the artists. The Lake George Music Festival also went virtual with an additional “drive-in” series of concerts.
Another Sign of Success
While all of these efforts kept the businesses open and allowed them to have a reasonably successful season, they also helped to keep COVID-19 cases down, with no cases attributed to tourism activities. The guidelines for local businesses were only part of this effort. Attempts to keep the visitors aware of and compliant with regulations such as mask-wearing and social distancing included creative signage throughout the area, training and advice for businesses, and expansion of the Safety Pledge to individuals.
“Over the summer, I believe the customers became more accustomed to the mask-wearing requirement,” says Patricia Dow of the Lake George Steamboat Co., one of the most popular activities in the area, “Our employees have been stellar in reminding customers of this requirement – via signs on the boats, captains’ announcements, conversations with customers purchasing tickets over the phones with our ticket sellers, etc. It has been challenging to balance our typical industry ‘hospitality’ with insisting upon mask-wearing as a protection to all. As the Lake George COVID Inspector commented recently, the Steamboat Company has accommodated a large number of passengers without a single case of COVID associated with taking one of our cruises.“ This was no small achievement for a business that took hundreds of tourists on cruises every day since opening mid-June.
Additional Factors Leading to Success for Lake George
New York Strong
New York State’s strict restrictions and guidelines, while frustrating for many businesses, provided more confidence in opening and staying open that tourism industries in many other states are still less likely to have.
The Traveller’s Desire to Get Back to Basics
Known as an old fashioned vacation spot, Lake George was especially attractive to those from more urban areas. Most of the activities and attractions, many outdoors with social distancing possible, were able to operate from early June once the region reached Phase 2 of New York State’s Reopening Plan.
Many visitors travel to the area by car, so reluctance to use mass transportation, like air or train travel, was less of an issue. While Albany airport is approximately an hour away and provides access for travelers from other parts of the country, many arrive by car. Via the New York State Thruway and Northway, a visitor from New York City can reach Lake George by car in approximately three hours.
The Chamber’s actions helped to energize the community to support its businesses and organizations through local spending and spreading the word far and wide. Social and charitable initiatives are thriving. For example, the Lake George Arts Project’s upcoming golf tournament has a record number of sponsors and golfers this year.
The autumn and early winter seasons have proved to be more popular than in previous years because many visitors appear to be taking more frequent weekend breaks instead of extended vacations. People are still looking to the great outdoors to relieve “cabin fever” and the pandemic’s other effects. Many businesses are staying open as long as possible, past the usual Labor Day or Columbus Weekend end of the season.
Other Takeaways from the 2020 Pandemic Summer Experience
Plan Ahead for Reduced Staffing
Two issues resulting from the pandemic caused almost all businesses to suffer from staffing problems, meaning that many owners and existing staff were doing the work of three or more people. As regards the Steamboat Co., Dow says, “A big challenge this season was hiring adequate staff. The extra weekly $600 for unemployment contributed to some of that difficulty, as did the absence of the international students who typically have come over to work the season. Fortunately, the employees this year have all worked extremely hard, long hours, and maintained their spirit of hospitality in the face of more customer angst than usual.”
Airbnb Rules During a Pandemic
Many lodging providers found that most of their business didn’t come from their websites or local directories but AirBnB. According to Atkins, “In the past, I always wanted to drive business to my website for organic bookings. This is not what happened this year. 80% of my guests booked through Airbnb or VRBO. I was curious about this as 90% of my bookings happened in the first three weeks of June, not by phone calls. Guests took pictures of the water, the sunsets, the boats, the campfires and sent them back to the city on Instagram, Facebook, etc. and when the folks in NYC asked where they were, they said they didn’t know exactly; they ‘just booked an Airbnb cottage in Lake George.’ ”
Long Term Benefits
While Lake George and the vast majority of businesses within the area had a much better season than everyone had expected, especially given the climate in March, the partnerships and practices established will provide many longer-term benefits for all in the region. The Steamboat Co., like most of the businesses in the area, has found that the experience has built skills and partnerships that are now a permanent part of doing business. According to Dow, “The spirit of adapting to changing regulations, requirements and health concerns will continue to be paramount as we finish this season and plan for the next one.”
On a more practical front, many businesses like the Natural Stone Bridge and Caves implemented new online booking systems to better manage visitor numbers under the conditions required due to the pandemic. Other businesses finally got around to setting up other online facilities like ticketing and checking in. to create a contactless experience for visitors. All of which enables these businesses to run much more efficiently and competitively.
What’s next for Lake George?
Now that Lake George has mastered how to succeed in tourism during a pandemic, what’s next? The Chamber has several new initiatives to build on what they have already achieved for the region:
- “Lake George Meetings & Weddings” is an initiative to get the message out that “It’s Time to Meet.”
- At the end of October, The Adirondacks Welcome Center, a rest stop on the highway through the area, hosted a virtual Taste of NY Producer Showcase featuring food produced in New York State. Much of which sold in vending machines located in the center.
- To ensure a high standard of service provided to tourists at all points of contact throughout the region, the Chamber is offering a tourism training program to members and their staff and any other interested individual in the community.
The area is now seeing an influx of new full and part-time residents from New York City and other more populated areas looking for somewhere safer to live. Mintzer is now looking at ways the Chamber can help these new residents, “What can we do for them to make them part of this amazing community?”