Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

Updated: January 25, 2021 Focus on Southern Maine

York County's resilient hospitality industry readies for the next test: 2021

Photo / courtesy of Cliff House The Cliff House in Cape Neddick set up igloos for diners last winter as a novelty. They added more as they became a necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was early March and Nancy White, general manager at the Cliff House in Cape Neddick, was at the top of the reception area watching guests at the resort interacting, enjoying a late-winter vacation.

While COVID-19 was in the news, shutdowns, mandatory masks, state restrictions, social distancing and more were yet to come.

The guests may have been were oblivious to what lay ahead, White says, but starting that day, things happened fast at the 226-room hotel and resort.

The spa and then the resort closed, as state restrictions requiring lodging to shut down came out.

In Kennebunkport, the Nonantum Resort, which is traditionally closed from mid-December into spring, was getting ready for its April 22 opening. That was delayed until June 1, when the state allowed hotels to open up to Maine residents.

There was a lot of apprehension, says Tina Hewett-Gordon, Nonantum’s general manager. “We just didn’t know what we didn’t know,” she says.

‘We know what to do’

Last March, owners and managers of York County’s iconic resorts, as well as the hundreds of other hotels, motels, inns, B&Bs, restaurants and bars on Maine’s southern coast, were thrown into a tailspin just as their money-making season approached. They spent the summer and fall constantly pivoting as restrictions changed, while also strongly advocating for flexibility from the state.

This year they face unknowns, but armed with the hard lessons learned from 2020.

There is still uncertainty as the new year begins, but they’re pros at that now.

“It’s made us very agile,” White says. “We had to learn to turn on a dime and become very creative, while still staying safe. We learned to find different ways of operating.”

Hewett-Gordon says, “We learned a lot about how to make things happen.”

The resilience and creative spirit of the hospitality industry is no surprise to those in it, says Steve Hewins, who recently stepped down as CEO of HospitalityMaine and now heads the HospitalityMaine Education Foundation.

“Incredible work” was done last year by the state’s restaurants and lodging businesses to keep staff and guests safe and keep customers coming.

“The industry has always been resilient,” Hewins says.

Loss of visitors, revenue

York County, with its coastal vistas and long stretches of sandy beach, is an iconic Maine summer destination. Inns like Cliff House, Nonantum Resort, Beachmere and many others, have been welcoming out-of-state visitors for decades.

That screeched to a halt in 2020, with the hospitality industry losing an estimated $1.7 billion in revenue and 28,000 jobs.

While specific figures weren’t available for the impact on York County, a HospitalityMaine study from before the pandemic found that the industry accounts for 14.6% of the county’s employment and 31.6% of its taxable retail sales. Some 80% of lodging businesses estimated they’d lose more than 50% of their revenue, according to a Maine State Chamber of Commerce Executives Association study. Hard numbers for a county that depends on tourism to get through the winter.

Nonantum eventually opened 70 of its 109 rooms, in order to maintain distancing. In June, occupation of the open rooms was 8%. It rose to 56% in July and 98% in August.

Hewett-Gordon says the focus on health and safety, the hard work of a smaller-than-usual staff and the “Kennebunkport Promise,” a town effort to keep things safe and healthy, all played a part in its rising occupancy rate.

Photo / Tim Greenway
Tina Hewett-Gordon, general manager of the Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport.

At the Cliff House, group conferences, a major revenue source, didn’t happen. But the resort offered on-site COVID-19 tests, so had many guests who came because they couldn’t travel elsewhere.

The flexibility of businesses, as well as town governments that loosened up ordinances for outdoor seating, curbside pickup and more were key, says Caitlynn Ramsey, secretary and board member of the York Region Chamber of Commerce.

“Everyone was doing what they could,” she says.

The southern coast usually slows down in the winter, and this year some of that was deliberate. For instance, the Ogunquit’s Beachmere Inn, which is normally open year-round, closed in mid-December and will open in April. Nonantum closed seven weeks early, in October.

The feeling in York County about 2021 “is hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” Ramsey says. Still, “Businesses are excited about welcoming people back. There’s a lot of exactment in people’s voices.”

Businesses also want to make sure out-of-staters know “they can come and they can be comfortable coming,” she says. “All the precautions aren’t going to disappear.”

Making changes permanent

Hewett-Gordon says a benefit is that some safety protocols and efficiencies, like touchless check-in, will stay. “We’d do something new, then say ‘Why didn’t we do this all the time?’” she says.

At Cliff House, glass partitions at reception and The Tiller restaurant, designed to fit with the décor, aren’t coming down. Other COVID-19-spurred changes will also stay, including major air quality and cleaning upgrades.

Both Cliff House and the Nonantum are also keeping their outdoor dining.

Cliff House’s dining “igloos,” set up as a novelty last winter, came in handy during the pandemic and are a hit. Like the outdoor dining cabanas Nonantum put on its lawn in June, they will remain.

Another long-term effect is how the staff handled the challenges.

A camaraderie grew over the year about the Cliff House staff of 150, down from the normal 450, White says. “They made things safe, and now they’re in a groove where they can handle it,” she says.

“It says a lot about people,” she adds. “They wanted to work, and they wanted to do a good job. People treated each other with a lot of thoughtfulness, and it was good to see.”

Widespread vaccinations, people feeling comfortable traveling, indoor bar service opening and the state lifting the 9 p.m. curfew on dining are all things that will factor into how this year goes, she says. Testing at home kits, predicted to be available by spring “will be a game-changer.”

Things are looking up at Nonantum. The resort usually hosts around 40 to 45 weddings, all of which were canceled or postponed last year, but has 70 booked for this year. Hewett-Gordon expects 2021 to be “a transitional year.”

“But if we can survive 2020,” she says, “we can certainly survive 2021.”

Sign up for Enews


January 26, 2021

This is great optimism & ingenuity that makes me proud to be a Mainer! Keep on keeping safe ya’ll❣️

Order a PDF