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Business and Economy

Jarred By Pandemic, Maine Hospitality Businesses Try To Capitalize On Influx Of Tourists

Virus Outbreak Maine Daily Life
Robert F. Bukaty
Visitors gather at a waterfront park, Saturday, May 15, 2021, in Bar Harbor, Maine. Gov. Janet Mills is is eliminating most outdoor distancing requirements imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic as the tourism season begins to kick into gear.

Warm-weather tourists have been pouring into Maine at numbers usually seen only after the 4th of July.

On the eve of summer's unofficial kickoff, seasonal resort areas are doing their best to take advantage of a post-lockdown surge in demand.

But with labor shortages and other economic dislocations that COVID-19 brought, some hospitality businesses may struggle to seize the moment.

Don't let the rain fool you: bookings for meals and lodging at tourism destinations around the state have been scarce for weeks, nowhere more so than in the vicinity of Acadia National Park.

At the Ironbound Restaurant and Inn in Hancock, proprietor Leslie Harlow turned away a steady procession of hungry tourists who didn't reserve ahead.

And that was on Wednesday — still only June.

Harlow says her tables are booked weeks ahead, and rooms at the inn are pretty much full through August. And takeout food? After a certain hour, forget about it — the kitchen has its hands full.

"Unprecedented," she says. "We've never seen this before, and I've been in hospitality in Maine for fifty years, so I'm pretty familiar with stuff... People just want to get out, and they're coming to Maine. And I think a lot of people are coming up here because a lot of us are vaccinated, so they feel safe."

Last year Harlow scaled back food service to only five days a week, and that goes again this year, with a tight labor supply making frontline hospitality workers a hot commodity.

Harlow says all sectors of the industry are being squeezed; just this week a dearth of truck drivers for food-supply companies upset menu plans at many area restaurants.

"And we are all getting our food delivered in very different ways: By people that we don't know. There's stuff being left outside of walk-ins. And it's just somewhat of a nightmare," she says.

Over in Bar Harbor, takeout lines are long, and room rates listed on Priceline are averaging close to $500 a night.

At the High Seas Motel, it's a chance to recoup losses suffered during the roughest days of the lockdown: last spring and early summer.

But it's hardly Easy Street.

"We're killing ourselves; we're working about 17 hours a day," says Kelly Oczkowski, who was making up rooms at the motel this week, aided by her sister Jennifer.

She lives in North Carolina, but relocated here to help out for the season. Add in husband Rich, and the trio are the entire staff this summer, compared to eight in a normal year, when young workers from overseas make up the balance.

"This year there's no overseas travel, and the kids that are in the U.S., college students, I don't know what they're doing this summer, but they don't seem to be taking any jobs," says Kelly.

To cope, the Oczkowskis are only booking 60% of their rooms, foregoing some of the potential windfall presented by Americans' renewed thirst for travel. And this year, she notes, the federal PPP bridge loans that helped the motel survive 2020 are no longer available.

Along the strip that leads into the center of Bar Harbor, several lobster shacks were open for only limited hours midweek, if at all. Visitors crowded roadside venues that could keep their doors open, sometimes waiting an hour for seating..

Matt Lewis, CEO of Hospitality Maine, says he's on the lookout for other lodgings that are taking the double-whammy of reduced capacity during the lockdown and now as well.

"Seemingly all these hotels are doing so well with their high average rates and the high occupancy. But many of those same hotels had deferred rent and deferred taxes and they are paying back on those. So even if a business is appearing to be successful right now may be in real jeopardy of going under," he says.

Lewis and industry participants are hoping that as visitors run into capacity limits in the usual summertime destinations, they will range farther around the state.

At Havana restaurant, located in the thick of Bar Harbor's downtown tourist district, owner Michael Boland says he sees it happening: He recently bought the Sunday River Brewing Company in the wintertime playground of Bethel — a location he says has performed surprisingly well this summer.

"It's stunning the level of tourism that's happening in Maine, at least in our corner of Maine, but I think it's all over," he says.

He cautions, though, that the industry shouldn't jump to the conclusion that this season represents a new normal.

"The fact is that no one's flying to Italy this year. How many dollars are spent in Canada every day of July and August by Americans? Right now there's zero dollars being spent there. And so all of that is being spent in Maine and New Hampshire and Vermont and everywhere else, and I think to make knee-jerk reactions to this level of tourism this year would be foolish," he says.

Still, Boland says, those first-time visitors to Maine?

He'll be working to get them back here again.