These are exciting times with most businesses open or preparing to re-open soon. These are also uncertain times as no one is quite sure what the “new normal” looks like. Watch this meetup to hear the results of our “Re-Opening Experiences” survey. You’ll also hear from our guest panel of tourism business leaders that will share their re-opening experiences including insights on current and future booking volume, changes they made to their marketing, and how they are adapting their experiences to accommodate social distancing guidelines.
- Marc Crusemire, Owner of Strasburg Scooters
- Rebecca Gallagher, Owner of Smithton Inn & Board Chair for Discover Lancaster
- Michael Rivkin, Owner of Dolon House B&B
- Phil True, Fun Scheduler at Refreshing Mountain
Re-Opening Survey Results
- 56% of businesses surveyed are currently closed to the public
- 32% plan to open in the next few weeks, 42% in the next few months
- 47% of open businesses just opened to the public in the last few weeks
- 87% of open businesses report 50% ore more decline in bookings
- 53% of open businesses are spending less on marketing
- Most businesses are shifting to primarily digital marketing tactics
- Email and social media marketing are the dominant tactics
Guest Panel Discussion
- Bookings have been down significantly for most businesses, but all are starting to see a pickup
- Many businesses are pulling back in marketing, which may represent an opportunity for others to grab market share
- Business owners are doing more of their own marketing right now to reduce costs
- Some business owners are trying new things:
- co-marketing with other businesses
- using videos or Facebook live, etc.
- donating tours, gift certificates, etc. to support other businesses
- Most businesses have had to adapt their operations in some way to accommodate social distancing guidelines
- offering lodging guests masks, hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes
- limiting tours to small group sizes
- replacing buffets with at table dining and/or in-room dining
- offering outside dining options
- using online bookings and digital waivers to limit or prevent walk-ins
- offering contact-less check-ins
- offering sales of gift store products online
- transitioning to online food sales with curbside pickup or local delivery
- Many businesses see a lot of future opportunities
- bookings are picking up, some expect to capitalize on pent-up demand
- opportunity to increase market share if other businesses are pulling back
- opportunity to consolidate and restructure debt with lower interest rates
- new revenue streams from online sales, curbside pickup, food delivery, etc.
- Re-opening Experiences Survey (download a PDF copy of the survey results)
- Accelerate Tourism Facebook Group
- Recovery Lancaster Website (for businesses in Lancaster, find resources for funding, personal protective equipment and more)
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[Carl] Welcome everyone, this is Carl Lefever from the team at Accelerate Tourism. This is our June 12th meetup. This is gonna be the 9th I think in our series of weekly meetups here during the lockdown period. So welcome to each of you. If this is your first time on the meetup, just want to quickly introduce ourselves. I actually own Improve and Grow which is a digital marketing firm, we help a lot of different clients but we concentrate in the tourism industry. And when all this started happening we were looking for ways to help both our clients and other peers in the industry and so we decided to start this weekly meetup virtually since a lot of us are working from home and observing good social distancing guidelines. And the whole goal is to serve each of you as business leaders in the tourism industry. We’re specifically focusing on tourism marketing ideas and we certainly don’t have all the answers so we’re inviting people in from the industry to share their ideas. What’s working, what’s not, and also opening it up for discussion on each of these calls. And we’ve been doing these weekly. Now that a lot of you are moving out of the lockdown and reopening your businesses to the public, you’re going to have better things to do than jumping on Zoom calls every week. So we are going to be moving these to monthly moving forward. I’ll probably talk about that at the end of the call today but just as a reminder, after this call we’ll be moving to a monthly cadence on the meetups. So with that, we’ll introduce today’s topic. As a reminder, if you’ve got questions for the panelists, or for us, please submit them through the Q&A feature. There’s a screen shot here just to show you where you should see that in your panel. Feel free to ask questions throughout. If we don’t address your question during the presentation we will have about 15 minutes at the end of the call for open Q&A, and Sam, our moderator, will bring those up then.
Re-Opening Experiences Survey Results
[Carl] All right, so we’re doing something a little different with our call today. Before we get to the guest panel, we had sent out a survey to all of the past meetup participants. We also opened that up to a list we have of people that we’ve been inviting to participate in the survey. We also posted it on some tourism industry forums on social media to try to get just as broad a perspective as we could. So I just want to go through some of the results of that.
So, first question was, are you currently closed. What’s your business status? Are you currently closed, fully open or open on a limited basis? I personally have been, you know, in our county, businesses have been opening for the last few weeks. I was a little surprised to see that still as much as close to 60% of businesses are currently closed. So I would guess that holds true for a lot of you on the phone as well. But another 27% are open on a limited basis and another close to 18% are fully open to the public. So we broke down the questions in the survey between whether you were open and closed. For the people that are not, are currently closed but planning to open, we wanted to get a sense of timing. Are they opening next week, are they opening in the next few months. And you can see here from the breakdown, 32% plan to open in the next few weeks, 42% in the next few months. And there’s another 26% that are still not sure. So, if you’re feeling a little uncertain right now, you’re not alone. There’s a lot of people that aren’t quite sure when they’re gonna open right now.
We also asked you to predict what your booking volume’s gonna look like. Just the overwhelming green section there on the pie is 79% of you are expecting your bookings to be down by 50% or more. There’s a small percentage that feel that they might be about the same as last year. Bigger percentage down 25 to 50%, and a very small percentage are expecting maybe bookings to be up. I want you to keep some of those stats, keep those specific things in mind when we look at the businesses that are open because there’s some pretty big differences there. In terms of marketing budgets, there’s a pretty big diversity here which you would expect. 32% are planning to spend less on their marketing, 32% are planning to spend about the same, and then there are some people that are still not sure how they’re planning to handle their marketing budget which makes sense. A lot of the verbal feedback from that group was you know, we’re gonna see how things go, and adjust our marketing spend up or down based on results. And then there’s a small slice of people that just aren’t sure right now. And for those of you, hopefully you’ll get some insights from today’s call on maybe how to handle that.
In terms of marketing tactics, for those of you that are planning to open and are thinking about your marketing strategy, there’s a pretty wide diversity as you would expect with the different tactics you’re planning to use. But if you look at the bars that are the highest or the most commonly mentioned, they’re almost all digital marketing related. Which I don’t think should be a big surprise. I think tourism generally weights a little bit more towards digital advertising, but it does seem like a lot of us are shifting our marketing to a focus on digital which I think is a combination of both reducing costs and taking advantage of things that people can do on their own as well as intending to get in front of people where they are right now. With a lot of people at home, digital’s gonna be a much more effective way of getting to people.
So now let’s shift gears and talk about the respondents that are open. So our first question for them was how long have you been reopened? There was about 33% that never closed. My guess is a lot of those are, not my guess, from the data, it looks like a lot of those are in the lodging category. In many areas they did not have to shut down. 20% just opened in the last few weeks. And nearly 50% literally just opened within the last week or two.
So of those, this is that question I wanted you to remember from the previous group. For those that have been open, when we asked them about their booking volume, almost 90% are reporting that their bookings are down 50% or more from this same time last year. And then 13% are reporting they’re down between 25 to 50. There wasn’t anyone in the survey that said results were about the same or that they were up. So that’s very interesting. That’s obviously not great news but for those of you who are planning to open and maybe in those categories of looking at your bookings, hoping your bookings will be up or about the same, at least based on your peers’ experience, that’s probably not a realistic expectation.
In terms of how marketing budgets have shifted for those that have opened. About 20% are spending more than they previously planned, 27% are spending about the same but the majority are spending less. Which makes sense, right? Less revenue, less marketing spend. One thing to be thinking about there, and I realize this is easier said than done with cash flow, but you may need to think about spending more in order to get more bookings. Again I understand there’s a cashflow challenge there.
In terms of digital marketing tactics, this was another contrast between the two. Due to the size it was hard to put these both on the same slide. It might be easier to see that one way, but what I want to point out is the commonality between the two groups was an emphasis on digital marketing but the thing that really stood out to me is social media and email. Those bars are much larger for the groups that have opened. And I know for those that I have talked to personally, a lot of people are coming to the realization that they need to focus on the things that they can do themselves, and the things that they can do quickly and easily and cheaply, and social media and email definitely fall in those buckets. And I know for those that we’ve been working with or advising in those areas, they’ve been seeing some good results from that now. With people being at home, social media and email is a great way to get in touch. Particularly with the audiences you’ve already developed who for many of you are gonna be your most loyal fans and therefore maybe those that you have the easiest access to start gaining some bookings volume.
Guest Panel Introductions
[Carl] So those were some interesting things that we saw from the survey. I now want to turn to our guest panel. I want to introduce them and then lead us through some questions here. Marc Crusemire, Way Fine Marc, he’s the owner of Strasburg Scooters here in Lancaster County. Rebecca Gallagher owns the Smithton Inn. She’s also the Board Chair for Discover Lancaster. For those of you that were on our earlier calls or that are from the Lancaster area, you know of Discover Lancaster. And she reminded me that she also owns a wine-tasting bar. So good cross-section of business purview there. Ben Ream, we were planning on Ben joining. He had a last-minute conflict, so he may join here mid-stream, but he’s the Sales Director at Navitat Canopy Tours. Michael Rivkin, say hi Michael. Michael’s the owner at Dolon House Bed and Breakfast in Jim Thorpe. And then Phil True, who’s been on our calls in the past, Fun Scheduler at Refreshing Mountain which does overnight retreats. They do cabin rentals and they run outdoor activities. So, welcome Marc, Rebecca, Michael and Phil. Thank you for joining us today. Go ahead and unmute yourself if you haven’t already. Or we can help with that. And let’s get into the questions. So, the first question is, what has your booking volume been like since you reopened? Rebecca, would you mind speaking to that?
Re-Opening Booking Trends
[Rebecca] Yeah, so it’s picking up, which is lovely. It’s interesting though too, normally we would have guests all week long, and what I’m seeing is guests just coming for the weekends. So we’re nearly full this weekend. That’ll be our busiest since kind of gearing back up. And we’re kind of in between, I was looking at the responses you had. We never truly closed, but we were so, we were only open for essential workers. We had a doctor who stayed with us a couple of times, so we were kind of practically closed. So for the last three weekends, we’ve had three of our seven guest rooms booked. This weekend we have five of our seven guest rooms booked. And we’re starting to see reservations coming in for July, August, September, so that’s, I mean that’s phenomenal for cashflow. Starting to get those deposits in is a big help.
[Carl] Yeah, thank you, that was going to be my follow-up question for you, is are you seeing people booking, starting to book ahead again, so it sounds like yes. Marc, how about you guys?
[Marc] We never really closed. While we weren’t doing tours, we just weren’t having people booking. But since we’ve I guess technically reopened at the beginning of June, our revenue’s up about 32% over last year, for June, for the first 11 days of June.
[Marc] So, I’m feeling very optimistic. Our phone is ringing, actually it’s ringing right now. So you’re costing me money, Carl. But just seeing the revenue up over last year, which was our best year, I’m feeling very optimistic. We’re still down almost 60% for the year. But, you know, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel I think.
[Carl] That’s awesome. Michael, how about you? I know you’re in a very different, or different market, maybe not a very different market, but a different market. How are things in Jim Thorpe?
[Michael] So Jim Thorpe is very heavily tourism-driven. There’s some county seat business activity, but not for the bed and breakfast. They would tend to be either at the Inn at Jim Thorpe or some of the other regional hotels. But let me mention if I may that we have a group of bed and breakfasts and the Inn at Jim Thorpe that work together all year. And in the middle of March as the shutdowns began, we of course are considered essential businesses, so of course we were not required to shut down. But we all agreed because we’re tourism-driven, we would indeed close with the exception of military, healthcare and other essential activity. With the exception of one B&B, none of us had that call and so none of us have had bookings until, excuse me, none of us have had guests until we reopened last week which was everybody’s decision just to sort of wait until the beginning of June. We actually are picking up rooms as Rebecca is doing. Our phone is ringing, our bookings are coming in. The summer and into the fall are nowhere near where they usually are. So to put it in relation, ordinarily by this time, Carl, most of our weekends, most of our weekends would be full through October, it would be very difficult to book here. And our midweek is typically a later pickup. And that tends to be older couples that will call Friday and say hey, we want to come Monday for three nights. That call is not being made right now. We are picking up some midweek, I’m very happy to say, contrary to Rebecca, but again, not the volume that we would have. But I think that has a lot to do with the fact that tends to be an older traveler.
[Michael] So essentially, anything that we’re picking up right now is really last minute. We picked up four bookings in the past 24 hours; one for tonight, one for tomorrow, one for next weekend, and one for September. So again, it’s all good, we’re happy to have the bookings. But the trends aren’t there. I might also add I think importantly, we close our OTA availability for weekends. Our weekends are never open on Expedia, booking.com and so on and so forth unless it’s last minute, we’re finding ourselves on a Thursday with some open rooms. But typically we don’t need to have, frankly, that expense. Right now our OTAs, every booking channel we have is being utilized, they’re wide open 100% all year. And that of course will have a further effect on bottom line.
[Carl] Right, right. Michael, you mentioned you also have some involvement with the Chamber in your area. Any broader perspective of trends outside of lodging?
[Michael] Absolutely. So food and beverage is doing terrific. Some of our restaurants that opened with takeout, frankly are doing better than they did under pre-COVID 19 conditions. They’ve essentially reinvented themselves. So the food and beverage, and we have some pretty cool shops and restaurants here. So the restaurants and pubs have been open for takeout as available. One of the better pubs in town, good friends of ours, opted not to do takeout. That model did not work for their physical plant. However, they have patio, so of course they were permitted to open under yellow. So they opened for outdoor dining, I’m gonna say actually last week. And they’ll progress to 50% indoor which is minimal for them, it’s a very small indoor space. But we have another good restaurant in town that’s just not ready to open yet because for them that 50% that comes into effect today for our region, that 50% model will not work for them because they’re too small and so to staff, stock, and reopen does not work for a restaurant of that size. Now, having said that, so while the restaurants are reinventing themselves and touch wood , doing good, retail is not. Retail has not come back. And our shops are, again, it’s a wonderful unique tourist town, and so the shops offer unique handmade items, homemade products, and essentially what we might all call dispensable income items. You don’t come to Jim Thorpe because you need wallpaper. Those shops are really slow to come back. And that’s a two-stage factor we think. Again, we just met on this last evening. One, many of our shops are in very small historic structures so that really challenges the social distancing. Two, folks are very weary about wear, well, let me rephrase that, the general public is hesitant to wear masks, and some of the shops actually have had confrontations with visitors when requested that sorry, it’s a tiny shop, it’s a state law, you have to wear a mask. And some of the visitors have gotten a little bit angry and departed without doing it. Having said that, our borough council is trying to make every accommodation possible to help some of those small shops. May I give you two examples?
[Michael] Okay, so October we typically do a fall festival, very large extensive, busy fall festival here in Jim Thorpe. That fall festival was greatly scaled down this year. Two of the items that we typically have at that fall festival at our county park right at the foot of the historic district here would be approximately 30 to 35 artisans, craftsmen and food trucks. They are not invited this year. We are not having that. With the specific goal of focusing that business back to our members, back to our historic district. Now, part and parcel of that, our borough council approved last night that for one of our streets that has no sidewalks to speak of, and therefore cannot put shops, expand their shops in front of their business, there’s a small park, borough park on their street. The borough granted permission last night for those shops on that street at no charge, no peddlers permits, no paperwork, no nothing, go ahead and set up tables during fall to try to expand that business. So again it’s a matter of trying to reinvent yourself and trying to take advantage of every opportunity. But is retail is struggling.
[Carl] Phil, how are things going at Refreshing Mountain?
[Phil] Yeah, so we’re kind of unique in that we have three separate areas that we can have business come through. So we have overnight retreats, we have day outdoor activities such as zip lining, we opened our pool recently, and then we also have overnight cabin rentals and hotel rooms now that we’re opening up for individuals or families to book into. So our overnight retreats is pretty much a complete loss at this point. Ever since March, people have pulled out, rightfully so in many ways, because we can’t necessarily host larger groups. We have a few still coming this summer, church groups, but as far as our bookings for outdoor activities, the phones have been steady and we’ve been filling up tours. However, we’ve been limiting those tours based on private tours instead of public or open tours where you might be paired with people that you don’t know. So we’ve made some of those accommodations So really our revenue is down, our bookings are there but the revenue is down because we’re having less people. And then for our overnight stays such as our cabins and our hotel rooms, we recently opened up our hotel rooms to families, which we usually just reserve for our overnight retreats but since we don’t have them, we’ve opened them up and we’ve been getting steady calls on those. And so we’re starting to really try to ramp that up a little bit more here to try to get people to stay longer and it seems like people are booking in fairly frequently. Which it’s hard to say compared to last year because we typically would have a lot of that space filled with overnight retreats. So it’s really hard to say where we’re at in the whole scheme of things. But overall I can pretty confidently say we’re down from last year.
Changes to Marketing Strategy
[Carl] All right, thank you. So, next question, what kind of changes have you had to make in the way you market your experiences? Anybody want to jump in on that one?
[Rebecca] All right, I can start.
[Rebecca] Essentially again, very much mirrors what you had in your survey where probably the biggest change is taking over a lot of the functions myself. Had to, I had gotten to a stage where I was able to hire a marketing company to do things like write blogs and send out email blasts, regular posts on our social media, search engine optimization, and I’ve pulled all of that in-house. So, and I’ll hopefully as business ramps back up again, start sending some of that back out again, but yeah, in this realm of having no cashflow coming in, that was one of the easier things to be able to cut. I can’t turn off my electric. But I could turn off the marketing and take that on. I also started doing some things that are maybe a little bit outside of my comfort zone and pushing myself to do it. Probably the biggest one is doing a couple of little videos. I participated in that Amish Farm and House video that they set up for bed and breakfasts to promote ourselves on their website. And even though I’m perfectly comfortable being interviewed by a TV reporter, I am not comfortable doing like personal videos, walking around, holding my camera up.
[Carl] I’m with ya.
[Rebecca] But you have to try stuff. So every opportunity that presents itself I’m giving it a go, I’m trying to be a gamer. But again, it’s all on low cost type of opportunities. I’m not thinking about print advertising, certainly not TV or radio. Even for the wine bar, it’s all been social media. Facebook, Instagram, primarily.
[Carl] How about the rest of you? Any changes of note other than what Rebecca mentioned with your marketing?
[Marc] We’re focusing on social media. As you know we pulled back from our Google, but the social media that we’ve been doing, rather than focusing on our business and our tours, is we’ve really been focusing on our community. So we’ve gotten involved with a little country store and miniature horse farm to help them out where we’ve provided tours for them to give away to people who sponsored some of their animals. Because they were having a hard time feeding some of the animals. So we used social media for that and just promoting the businesses that are around us. Now once we get through June, I’m kind of using June as a catch-up month where we’re catching up on those bills that we didn’t get a chance to pay, and then we’re looking at July to really starting things back up and ramping up. And we’ll probably take a look at spending more than we did last year. And I see it as an opportunity. If there’s others out there who are pulling back on their spending, it’s an opportunity for me to grow. So it’s a risk I’m willing to take.
[Carl] Yeah. Michael, any big changes to your marketing approach?
[Michael] Not so much to be honest, Carl. We focus on our Facebook page, and Google, TripAdvisor and those OTAs. The TripAdvisor for us is key. And we had one unique challenge this year and that is that we moved the business and changed the name in January. So, fortunately we were able to keep the TripAdvisor, the TripAdvisor reviews, which were super, super important to us. But the Facebook is key, and I’ll tell you why. Because we have a historic landmark home here in town that we’ve been renovating bit by bit. And we post those renovations, updates, decorating as we do them. And that keeps the previous guests and new, completely engaged. And so because it’s a unique property, we have a lot of repeat support. That’s worked really well for us. But in terms of investing any additional, not so much. And to Marc’s point, we absolutely, positively have not stopped with the support we give to the local community, whether it be a financial donation for, to sponsor a music event for example, or we tend to give a lot of gift certificates out. And we have absolutely not stopped that. That’s good for word-of-mouth, and I think it would be really bad for word-of-mouth if you didn’t.
[Carl] Yeah. Phil, how about you guys?
[Phil] Yeah, so I mean right off the bat, I think this Accelerate Tourism meetup has been extremely helpful in the process of trying to figure out hey, how can we do better. So we’ve taken a lot of key things away from that plus we have an awesome marketing agency that’s been supportive of us throughout the time, giving us some good advice. And even though we’ve cut that out of our budget at this point, that is our marketing agency, we’ve like Rebecca mentioned, we’ve gone into social media a lot heavier, a lot more heavier and also really just connecting with local businesses. So we’ve been partnering with some B&B’s to do some outdoor adventure packages where we’re giving them some deals for their customers, they’re creating packages for that. We’ve just been really trying to connect more with our local businesses to kind of help support each other, so that’s been great. And we’ve been in the middle of a website refresh which I think has also kind of helped as far as the navigation for people to make those call-to-actions and really kind of drive some of that there. So, we’ve been doing a few things across the board but yeah, definitely, like Rebecca, we’ve been doing some social media stuff that I’ve been uncomfortable with if you will, with doing videos and other stuff. But we’ve seen, we’ve done some ad boosts on there, some post boosts that is, on Instagram and Facebook, and we’ve seen some pretty good engagement with that. And so with some of the promotions we were doing, we were actually pulling some people in and then they were finding other things about us and not even booking for things that they saw the promotion for. So that’s been helpful, those little things have been really helpful all along the way.
Changes to Operating Procedures to Accommodate Social Distancing Rules
[Carl] Good. Good, as we go to the next question, just a reminder for the audience to, if you’ve got questions for the panelists, these are all people that are in business right now, that have been going through what you’re about to go through if you’re thinking about reopening here soon. So if you’ve got questions that we haven’t addressed yet, throw them in Q&A and we’ll get those, we’ll get to those after we get through the next few minutes here. So, a big question I think a lot of people have. I saw these when people registered, there were several people that asked questions along these lines. What kind of, I’m interested to hear you guys elaborate a little bit on what kind of changes, if any, have you had to make to accommodate clients’ fears about safety and to comply with government regulations on social distancing? Anybody want to jump in on that? Phil I know you guys have made some changes at Refreshing Mountain.
[Phil] Yeah, so we’ve had to pivot a lot of what we do. So like I said before, we’ve done private, public tours usually where people are coming and jumping in on zip line with other groups. We’ve made those completely private. So, all of our guides wear face masks or some kind of face protection barrier between the customer and them. The nice part is actually the state has given us the opportunity to decide whether or not we want customers to, whether they’re required to wear face masks or not. So we’ve left that up to the decision of the customers. And we found that that’s been really beneficial because some of them just don’t feel comfortable zip lining in hot weather with a face mask on. Or climbing a climbing tower. Or, for example, going to our pool. It’s actually a safety hazard, wading in water with a face mask on, it can be detrimental to your health actually. So that’s been some unique ones. We’ve also moved away from the term social distancing and actually looked at repurposing that to say responsible spacing. We felt that the social distancing term was creating a connotation of hey, we don’t want you to interact with us or anybody else. And so we’ve moved away from that and really have started to push, even on social media, like we want you to be present with us and with each other while you’re here. So, that’s been a perspective-shift that we’ve also done in that realm to try, because I think throughout all this, honestly, is we’re fighting perception, right? There’s, it’s all about what people perceive. And so, and there are warranted levels of that. So trying to meet people where they’re at, whether that’s, they want to come right away and do everything, they’re a little hesitant, but kind of tipping, putting their toes in the water. Or they’re just absolutely not. I do not want to go out, I don’t want to do anything. So we want to be sensitive to all of those. But help that perception and show them that we have a safer environment for them to be here. So we really, really have been pushing that and just kind of trying to move that perception as much as possible and we’ve seen as other people open up, our hope is that people will see that they can get out, they can start to do things outdoors, they can maybe take a trip to a B&B or somewhere outside of their realm, that they can do those things and do it safely in a good way. So, it’s good we’re doing the changes.
[Carl] I have felt this whole time that it’s just, you know, it’s gonna take the people that are those that want to get out right away, like if they can be seen doing that in a safe way and a fun way, that’s just going to build, you know, other people are going to be encouraged by that, and it should snowball again hopefully in a safe way. Anyone else want to share any of the changes that they’ve made?
[Marc] So, one of the things that we’re doing is we haven’t opened up our office. We still have the building except for the bathrooms, we still have closed to the public. So when they check in, we’ll meet them outside. We’re checking people in rather than a desktop, we’re checking people in on our phones. Our waivers, we’ve been trying to get away from paper waivers and this is actually been great because we do have digital waivers available. We have kiosks set up in the office but we are encouraging our guests to fill them out prior to arriving, and we’re having about a 90% success rate on that. So those are probably the biggest changes other than the fact that right now we’re not accepting walk-in guests. So all of our tours are done by reservation. But we’ve been spraying out our helmets and sanitizing them after each use before it became trendy. So we’re good there.
[Phil] Yeah, with ya on that.
[Rebecca] Yeah, for us, the biggest difference, the three main areas are check-in, breakfast and check-out. And so like Marc, we’ve kind of gone toward digital, or we’re just taking reservations, no walk-ins, rather than having a personal face-to-face interaction for check-ins, we have an express check-in system where guests will find a letter on our desk, letter tells them everything that we would tell them anyway. In some ways I think guests like it even better. They don’t need some innkeeper telling them where the light switch is. I think they can figure that out. Breakfast is probably the biggest difference. And there we’re kind of following the lead of our guests. We’re wearing a mask or a face shield throughout. Any sort of buffet-type things have gone away so I had to stock up on like thermos coffee pots so everyone gets one at their own table. They get their sugar and creamer and butter and there is no walking up to a buffet anymore. And there’s no sharing tables. We have three individual tables that people can sit at. Normally you might have another couple join you, but we’re not doing that anymore unless it’s a group that came together. And we are giving guests the option to have breakfast in their rooms. So we invested in trays and stands and all those sorts of things to make that possible for our guests. What I’m seeing though is the people who are traveling now, those early get-out-again people, they’re just, they think this is all ridiculous. And they don’t even, you know, they’re much less cautious. I think we’re gonna start to see those other cautious folks but I think, you know, everybody’s touched on it. It’s that perception, one of those other, like out-of-my-comfort-zone things that is, I made a video of all of these processes, the cleaning procedures, the, Phil I love your responsible distancing, whatever, that was a great phrase, I’m using that. But all those things that are gonna make them feel comfortable coming in. They know that you’ve taken steps and that the other guests that are at your property are gonna be taking similar steps. I think that just makes people feel better, and then when they get here they’re like, ah, fine. So, we’re gonna see how that plays out. But yeah, I think we’ve gotten some really good advice from organizations like PABBI, the Pennsylvania Association of Bed and Breakfasts. I’m a member of a group called Select Registry. They have phenomenal guidance, and they’ve taken into account CDC, so I think there’s a lot of organizations out there. PLRA, different attraction organizations that we can really get some good advice and protocols that, and you know it’s not just about keeping our guests safe. We have to keep ourselves safe. You know, if Phil gets sick, Refreshing Mountain’s in trouble. If our bed and breakfast, if I get sick, that’s, my only source of revenue goes away. So I think it’s not just for their safety, they need to recognize that we’re trying to keep ourselves safe too.
[Carl] Great points.
[Michael] So if I may, one of our greatest concerns in reopening was I would say that a lot of the, for lack of a better word, the mojo that we generate here with our guests, is the socialization at the breakfast table. Breakfast here is three courses, it can be 90 minutes. It’s a pretty big deal. And our fear was, and that’s where guests get to interact and whatnot. Our trouble under normal times is to get them out of the table so we can get them checked out and get the room refreshed for the next guest. Well, what we wanted to do was ensure that we didn’t lose that mojo. And by spreading out the tables, and utilizing our veranda where we have a lot more room, we can put people outdoors. Rebecca, everybody’s really 100% more comfortable outdoors for dining. And so we have them responsibly distanced apart but they can still converse, and so what we’ve found just after a week, is that that energy is still there, that very positive energy is still there. We still do a check-in but in terms of a check-in. For previous guests, they know our routines, they get a door code, they know where to park, they know where to eat. We have maps and whatnot. But folks want a house tour, we don’t offer that to the public right now. The house is closed to the public unless you’re a registered guest. And the guests do still want that interaction. But we are masked, we are sanitizing, we have no…homemade biscotti in a jar have been replaced with packaged, store-bought biscotti for example. The community coffee lounges are replaced with individual coffee service in each room. So, and of course we have sanitizer stations and all the protocol that we should have. And to be honest, when the guests sees you at 8:30 in the morning walking around with a mask, gloves, and sanitizing railings and doorknobs, they’re more comfortable. So the greatest challenge right now I think we’re gonna have is making sure that our guests are not too complacent. And right now, because our county and Jim Thorpe have historically been low in the COVID counts, during the whole crisis, folks are perhaps a bit cavalier. When you wander our town, as I mentioned earlier, you’re not seeing face masks use and you’re actually seeing refusal to wear coming into shops, and that cavalier attitude is fearful to me because I don’t want to bring it in to Rebecca’s point to our house. And so while not portraying being a hospital, and taking all the personality out of the experience, we have to find that balance between conversing, sitting down, going over what to do, where to go, and maintaining some sort of distancing and safety.
Opportunities for the Future
[Carl] Great. Thank you all, that was really good feedback. We’re about to transition into taking questions from the group, so if you have a question, you haven’t had a chance to submit it yet, please go ahead and do that. And Sam, be ready to start bringing up those questions. But I do want to give our panelists one last question. We’ve heard a lot about the challenges with booking, some of the changes you’ve had to make, but we’ve also heard some encouraging things with bookings being up in some cases, with guests, you know, bookings starting to pick up. And with getting good response from the community. So as you look kind of towards the future, what would you guys say, I want to hear from each of you, what would you say is the biggest opportunity you see for the future. Rebecca, why don’t you go first?
[Rebecca] Yeah, so I think, you know, necessity is the mother of invention, and we’ve all had to look at new and different ways, to Michael’s point, to provide a customer experience. And even just to generate revenue. So while this whole shutdown was occurring, you know, I had possible revenue could be from the wine bar, but the wine bar was shut. So we started doing pick up and delivery. And we had to create an online store which we had never had before. So now people can order our wines online, they can order slushies online and go and drink it out in our grounds. And so those things were an opportunity for doing something different that was socially distanced. We’ve had a gift shop in the bed and breakfast for years. But I never did online ordering for it. And I’ve done a couple thousand dollars in revenue from our online gift shop. Same thing, I took it, and made an online store. So I think those opportunities are, I wouldn’t have done those things if I wasn’t forced to do those things and so I think I have to, the key is to keep on looking for opportunities like that. I like Marc’s idea in a world where other people might be hunkering down or scaling back or afraid to reopen, there’s opportunities for maybe picking up a little bit of market share. Picking up market share from maybe big hotels that people don’t want, they figure a smaller property, they have less of a chance of interacting with other people. So yeah, those opportunities are out there. And then, I really like the idea of partnering. Phil, I will be calling you about a package for Refreshing Mountain in our bed and breakfast. I think looking for opportunities to co-market each other is just a win-win for everybody.
[Carl] Cool. Michael, how about you, what do you guys see as big opportunity for the future?
[Michael] Carl, very briefly, so, pent-up demand. There’s no question. Everybody wants to get the heck out of Dodge. And so what we did was we took what the industry was doing after the shutdowns began in early March. Everybody put their cap-ex projects on hold, they stopped buying anything, they stopped doing maintenance, repairs, renovations, and on the reopening, you’ll see that many of the large hotel companies, most of the commercial lodging establishments, have cut their services. We did the opposite . We accelerated our renovation and investment program and now we’re ahead of where we thought we’d be now which is perfect for the reopening. And we’ve tried to up our game with guests amenities. So we did the opposite, we took the opportunity where other people were sort of backing away from life, and we spent three months getting ready for reopening.
[Carl] That’s great. Phil, how about you guys, what do you guys see as the biggest future opportunity?
[Phil] Yeah, so in short, say yes to everything.
[Rebecca] I like that.
[Phil] We, honestly, when we were founded by Marlin and Sharon Harnish, a couple that came together 35-plus years ago. They literally would get a call from a retreat saying hey, we’ve got 30-something people, we want to come this weekend, and Marlin would say, okay. And they only had 12 beds, and they had you know, another group coming in. You know, so they said, okay, now how are we gonna make this work? And so anything that comes through we’re actively engaging in it. And we’re planning ahead so we’re thinking about what if we go back to yellow, or if we’re green here soon, what if we go back to yellow, what if we go back to red? What does that look like? And so a school district called us the other day and said hey, can you guys host students if we’re in yellow? They can’t all be at our school. You would have to provide supervisory roles and social distancing, all that, so we’re not throwing it out the window, we’re entertaining it. So stuff like that I think we just are keeping our ear to the ground and saying “yes” to everything.
[Carl] Okay. Marc, how about you guys?
[Marc] I guess my answer would be similar to some of the answers we’ve already heard. But one of the things we’re actually looking at is consolidating debt. Money is cheap right now. And my wife and I bought out my ex-partner back in 2015 and since that time we’ve grown our business about 400%. In doing so that required us to take on some debt that we didn’t want to take on but it helped to grow the business. We’re looking at this right now as an opportunity to create more cashflow because we’re able to consolidate that debt with the, with cheaper interest rates. So that’s, for us, that’s probably the biggest opportunity. We’re gonna continue to do what we’ve done. We’re gonna continue to come up with new and exciting tours and you know, give the best, the guests the best tour that we possibly can. That’s not gonna change. But it’s that cashflow, it’s that behind-the-scenes stuff that people don’t see that helps to run the everyday business.
[Carl] That’s a very great point and probably very relevant for many of the people on the call. Thank you. What kind of questions do we have from the group?
[Sam] Yeah, so one we have here is, are bookings you’re getting being dominated by local guests rather than travelers from further away.
[Rebecca] Yeah, for us, it’s been like not necessarily local in Ephrata, but local like short drives, definitely. Hershey, Harrisburg, York, Lebanon, places that aren’t normally our big, our biggest groups of customers are more coming from like New Jersey, Maryland, D.C., Delaware, and so yeah, we definitely have seen a move to closer drives. And I haven’t had a single person since we reopened that’s flown here.
[Michael] Right. And I would say it’s the same for us. Our traditional draw for our visitors to Jim Thorpe is the Lehigh Valley, greatly the Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia region, upper New Jersey, northern New Jersey and New York. And that’s exactly what it is. And everything essentially is a two-hour drive or under. But definitely driving.
[Phil] Same here. I think people are, I’m even looking to go places, right? And like we’re looking to go to Maine but Maine’s, you have to quarantine for 14 days currently to go there, so I think people are really searching and saying hey what are the state laws right now in regards to this whole thing. And for us in Pennsylvania, what are the county-by-county, where are they at? And what can be done. And so again, kind of going back to our website and other information out there for what are we doing, we’re trying to keep up with making it aware and making people aware of where we’re at for that so that they can say, oh yeah, they’re in Lancaster County, okay, like they can host people, this is what we can do, and we’re putting links even to government websites saying yeah, this is where you can be. And this is how you can do it safely.
[Carl] That’s great. I was going, you kind of took the words out of my mouth, I was gonna follow up to that to say to everyone on the call like you may have to, normally you’d probably think it’s outside the scope to talk about what the county safety guidelines are, what’s going on in the state, but you’ve got people looking at your website thinking about coming to your property that might be making stuff up about what they can or can’t do. So going out of your way to create a simple statement and then link to government agencies with the details is a great step. Awesome. Questions, other questions, Sam?
[Sam] Yeah, I don’t recall hearing much about this as you all were answering the questions. But have people, have customers been asking about discounts, you know, and if so, what does that look like? How are you answering that, what kind of things are they asking you for?
[Rebecca] I’ve heard, one of my favorite, there’s a woman who owns the Old Square Inn in Mount Joy, and she was on a video call the other day, and the question about discounts came up and she quickly was like, we are not charging a penny more to implement all of these safety protocols that we have put in place for you. So, she like took that and flipped it. And said, we are going above and beyond, extra cleaning, I mean, the amount of supplies that we’ve had to buy in terms of room service-type things and sanitizing sprays and masks, we provide two masks per guest. We provide them individual sanitizers, we provide wipes in their room in case they want to wipe down surfaces themselves, if they don’t really trust us. And we aren’t going to charge you any more for any of that.
[Carl] That’s great.
[Phil] Love that.
[Michael] We’ve had no requests for rate reduction. None. And we did knock our rates down a little bit for June but I can tell you effective after the July 4th holiday which is typically the heart of our season here in Jim Thorpe, the rates are as published late last year. There’s no change. Our traditional policy is the rate is the rate, no matter what platform you look on, you’re gonna see the same rate for our rooms. The reality is again, our normal policy is if it’s a Friday morning and there’s a room open, yeah, we may work with you a little bit on it, but in terms of a phone call that starts off with what discounts do you have, it’s probably not one I’m going to convert to a booking.
[Rebecca] Now that said, so we aren’t necessarily doing discounts, but the average daily rate in Lancaster County has dropped significantly and a lot of that has to do with just a crazy amount of new inventory that’s online. You know, we’ve got a true hotel up the street that’s charging less than $80 a night. And it’s lovely, brand-new hotel. And so there’s a lot of other properties that are driving our price down, not necessarily the coronavirus.
[Phil] Yeah, we’re running tons of discounts . I think, and again, we’re unique in that we have different, we have overnight stays and we also have outdoor activities, but I think for especially our outdoor activities, we’re running discounts, and I think it’s more so pulling people in to see hey, it’s kind of a conduit, if you will, for that, but yeah, we would love to get away from that. But, Rebecca, to your point, I think, and Michael, I think you both have made a good case of, I think people are looking more for a personal experience in that way. They’re not gonna be looking for these chain hotels. Because they can see the value in being a space that is not highly populated or they know that you guys are caring for your place and support small businesses too, so I think that’s really key too.
[Carl] Cool, well, unfortunately I think that needs to be our last question. I do have a couple more things I want to cover here, but just want to thank you Rebecca, Michael, Phil and Marc for joining us today. This went even better than I planned, meaning in terms of just the quality of your responses and the positivity behind that each of you show around, yeah, there’s some challenges but here’s how we’re working through it. And there’s some big future opportunities that’s just really encouraging.
[Marc] Can I put in a plug real quick for a local business?
[Marc] I spoke with the owner of Good N’ Plenty yesterday and they are opening today for indoor dining.
[Marc] Yes, so if you’ve got any guests or you’re local, Good N’ Plenty will be open today and tomorrow for indoor dining. GoodnPlenty.com.
[Carl] Thanks Marc. Since it came from you we won’t get in trouble. That technically violated one of our meetup principles but okay. I said it was all right, it’s fine.
[Marc]I’m a rebel, Carl, I’m a rebel.
[Carl] You are, that’s good, that’s one of the reasons we love you, Marc. Awesome.
[Carl] Well, I’m gonna repeat what I said at the beginning of the call. This is our last weekly meetup. We’re gonna move to a monthly meetup. We still want to be here to serve you guys. We want to help you guys but we also recognize you need to be much more focused on your businesses right now than attending Zoom calls. And frankly, we do to. So, we are going to be moving to monthly. And I would like each of you, if you could, before you leave today, I’m launching a poll right now here on Zoom. We’ve got a list of 10 topics or so that are on our list of topics that we haven’t covered yet or haven’t covered as deeply as we could. If any of those topics are of interest to you, please click on them and let us know. We want to make sure we’re serving up topics that are relevant to you, not just relevant to us. So before you log off today, if you could vote on that poll. That’ll help us queue up the right kind of content as we move forward. Thank you very much.
And for those of you that are new and don’t know about this yet, we do have a Facebook group just for the Accelerate Tourism meetup. This is for people from the meetup to be able to interact, share, collaborate. We’ve had people, you know, Rebecca talked about co-marketing, we’ve had people join together and create deals on our group. We’ve had people post their websites or post an email or post a social media post and feedback. It’s a great forum for that. We don’t post too much on there, but we, if I find good stats or metrics or good stories of things that are going on that are relevant to the group we post them there. Yeah, so I just encourage you to join up with the group and use it as a forum to bounce feedback off of your peers. It’s a private group so it’s safe. You can be honest, you can ask for feedback and not worry that it’s gonna be out there in the public.
Again, thank you everyone, really excited to see businesses opening, really excited personally to hear some of the stories we heard today. It’s very encouraging and hopefully those of you that listened in feel the same way. I wish y’all a great weekend and a good summer.
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