A look at how NH tourism industry has fared during pandemic

  • Former Concord High cross country coach and former city councilman Alan Hershlag crisscrosses with Concord resident Karri Makinnen on the Beaver Meadow cross country course on Wednesday, February 3, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Skiing at Crotched Mountain in Bennington. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 2/9/2021 7:45:51 AM

The pandemic has impacted every level of tourism in New Hampshire, from leaf peeping to dining. Visitors are faced with state regulations both in New Hampshire and often in their home state as well.

It’s because of these challenges that Lori Harnois, New Hampshire Tourism Director, says, “The Division is not forecasting travel or spending for the 2020-21 winter season. Similar to summer and fall, due to COVID-19, there are many unknowns and variables with the potential to impact visitation and visitor spending, making it difficult to project those figures.”

Foliage season

When it comes to the fall season, Harnois says that the data isn’t in to truly understand how New Hampshire’s tourism marketing impacted visitation.

“Our marketing this fall was quite different than years past,” she notes. “We promoted the state as a foliage destination to visitors from New England, where there were no quarantine restrictions. Anecdotally, there was steady visitation to the state during the months of September and October.”

The reach of canceled festivals reached across the state. Ginnie Lupi, director of the NH State Council on the Arts, says, “The pandemic has significantly impacted cultural tourism throughout New Hampshire. Most performance venues have been closed for the duration and expect to remain so for at least several more months, and museums that did reopen are seeing few visitors.”

Large festivals such as the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen Annual Fair and the NH Highland Games, which draw visitors from around the world, and regional arts events, which attract attendees from surrounding states, did not occur in 2020.

Looking forward, Lupi continues, “Now that the vaccines are being distributed, we are hopeful that by the summer of 2021, New Hampshire’s cultural activity and related tourism will rebound.”

The great outdoors

With festivals shuttered and venues closed, people all over New Hampshire and New England were looking for safe activities.

New Hampshire State Parks Public Information Officer Brent Wucher says that “2020 was definitely a year that started off with a lot of uncertainty for NH State Parks.”

At first, he notes, they were looking at the possibility that parks may not open at all for the 2020 summer season. But by mid-March, Wucher says they saw record numbers of hikers at popular locations such as Mt. Monadnock.

Wucher points out that Mt. Monadnock ran the pilot program for the advanced day-use reservation system that was later rolled out to all the other parks for the 2020 season.

“It worked well as a way to avoid large numbers of hikers on the mountain on busy weekends,” Wucher notes.

Late season openings and capacity limits also impacted the parks. As Wucher points out, this had a large effect since “NH State parks is unique in the sense that it is operationally self-funded. The park system relies on fees to run the parks, and not all parks collect fees or generate positive revenue.” He notes that fees and donations go directly to supporting the state’s parks system.

In most years, visitation to parks is mainly during the weekends and holidays, he notes. “2020 was different as we often saw equal visitation on weekdays as we saw on the weekends. Camping saw record numbers despite the late-season startup.”

The park season year typically ends with Labor Day weekend, but for 2020 Wucher says the parks were kept open as long as the weather cooperated.

‘Trouble-inn’ times

Even with the increased visitation rates for September and October, local and business travel was down compared to previous years, says Eric Lorimer of the Monadnock Travel Council. Lorimer and his wife, Pam, also own the Jack Daniels Motor Inn, whose revenues for 2020 are down about 30%. He also mentions, some smaller lodging properties in the Monadnock Region decided to close in March/April 2020 with plans to reopen in January 2021. However, many may be pushing that out until later in 2021.

“Thanksgiving and Christmas are pretty busy for us, but we had the quietest Thanksgiving ever because people just couldn’t or wouldn’t travel,” says Lorimer.

New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association President and CEO Mike Somers says that the data reflected through only November 2020 shows New Hampshire occupancy is down 32.7% – slightly better than the national average of down 33.2%. And better than the greater New England region, which is down 40%. Room revenue is down about 40% as well, which is better than the national average of down 49%; the New England region is down 57%.

All of these numbers, says Somers, paints a grim picture for the entire industry.

“In 2020 through November, in the state, the loss in sales to the hospitality and tourism industry was somewhere north of $775 million, which is a loss of about $70 million in rooms and meals tax,” he notes. “So that’s a significant amount of money both for the industry and for the state.”

Somers notes that as reopening started to occur in the spring, outdoor dining was a critical component. “We didn’t recover fully, but we almost got back to break-even but, not quite. We got close a couple of months in July and August.”

Now that winter has arrived – and outdoor dining is out of the question – those numbers have “just fallen off a cliff,” Somers says. “We’ve got folks who told us that they were down, 40% to 60% in December, which is just a huge amount of money for some of these businesses. And keep in mind, the restaurant industry alone operates on three to five percent profit margins. So, if you’re down 40 to 50 percent, you know, and you’re not even close to making money, you’re losing money every hour that you’re open.”

Outlook for 2021?

Overall, the future is yet to be determined. This is an unprecedented time without any data to base predictions on, and as Lori Harnois points out, “this year has not been like anything New Hampshire’s tourism industry has ever experienced.”

She adds that despite the challenges, many New Hampshire businesses pivoted and adjusted their traditional business models to meet state guidelines and safely reopen their doors to welcome visitors during the summer and fall. That effort continues now into the winter season.

The industry should know how the winter fared come late spring or early summer. Right now, the best we can do is hope for snow.

This article is being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.


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