ST. PAUL -- After four decades at Grand View Lodge, Mark Ronnei usually knows what to expect every summer at the popular Nisswa, Minn., resort. But this isn’t a normal summer.
“The day before Memorial Day, I didn’t know if I was going to have a terrible summer or a non-existent summer,” said Ronnei, Grand View’s managing director.
When it came to summer travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, resorts and campgrounds in Greater Minnesota were among the bright spots, according to Explore Minnesota, the state’s tourism promotion office. On the flip side, the pandemic-related travel downturn has cost Minnesota roughly $5 billion in travel spending losses from mid-March through August, according to industry research by Tourism Economics.
The virus prompted officials to shut down or at least limit the size of many traditional events, from weddings to festivals to conventions. Health officials urged Minnesotans to stay home, or at least close to home when taking trips.
With more Minnesotans vacationing in state, resort and campground owners reported stronger tourism business than the metro region, which experienced a big downturn in meeting, convention and event business, according to Explore Minnesota’s annual post-summer survey, which was released Wednesday, Sept. 2.
As for Ronnei and his lodge: “I ended up having a great summer.”
At Grand View, the occupancy rate from June through August was around 90%, which was down slightly from a normal year because the single-occupancy units were not being rented out by conference guests, Ronnei said. The resort saw more families and couples looking for an escape from home like never before.
“Our family count was between 10 to 15 percent over what it’s ever been,” Ronnei said. “Space was made available because weddings and conferences weren’t there. The families loved it.”
The survey was completed by 307 Minnesota lodging businesses throughout the state, including hotels and motels, resorts, bed-and-breakfasts, campgrounds, houseboat operations and vacation home rentals.
Consistent with close-to-home travel trends during the pandemic, 47 percent of respondents reported that a larger than normal share of their guests were Minnesota residents.
Compared with last summer, 61% of respondents said revenue was down, while 58% reported decreased summer demand. By contrast, 29% of respondents said revenue was up this summer, and 31% of respondents saw an increase in demand.
Nearly one in three respondents stated business activity has surpassed pre-pandemic levels, while 31% said it has returned to pre-COVID levels. However, 21% do not anticipate business returning to pre-COVID levels until at least 2022.
Ben Wogsland, director of government relations for Hospitality Minnesota, a St. Paul association representing hotels, motels, lodges, restaurants, resorts and campgrounds, said the annual survey reflects what they have been hearing from businesses.
“It’s a tough time for the hospitality industry in general in Minnesota,” Wogsland said. “And there’s a little bit of a mixed bag. We clearly saw through the summer and through the Fourth of July weekend and onward some positive things, especially due to recreational travel. People were willing to get out and travel the state a little bit more, and obviously that was helpful to resort properties and some of the lodging properties and campgrounds in Greater Minnesota.”
Hospitality Minnesota surveyed hospitality businesses last month and found that 40 percent of the operators said they did not think they were going to be able to make it through the end of the year at the current trajectory, Wogsland said.
“That’s a huge number,” he said. “It’s really troubling and it’s concerning.”
Wogsland noted that hospitality businesses employ over one in 10 workers in Minnesota.
“That’s an awful lot of jobs that these businesses are supporting,” he said. “So it’s in everybody’s interest for us to all work together — the government, the industry and organizations — to help these businesses survive and make it through this.”
Trends to continue
Explore Minnesota expects the stay-close-to-home travel trend to continue. The organization cited tourism market research by consultant Longwoods International that found approximately one-third of American travelers have tentative trip plans for the remainder of 2020.
Alissa Boser, owner of Pete’s Retreat Family Campground and RV Park on Mille Lacs Lake, is expecting a busy fall. Weekends are booked until Oct. 1, “which is unusual because usually after Labor Day, people are back to school and work and we don’t get many bookings,” she said.
But Ronnei of Grand View Lodge said distance learning and working remotely has changed daily routines and that families are choosing to spend weekdays Up North.
“I’m seeing weekday reservations in September for families like I have never seen before,” he said. “Families are looking at the prospect of doing school and working at home and they’re saying, ‘Grand View has great WiFi. Why don’t we just do it there?’ ”