LAKE PLACID — Lake Placid businessowners and hoteliers saw a marked improvement in tourism this summer, despite a continued lull in international travelers. Local officials are optimistic that tourism will remain strong heading into the fall.
For local proprietors, it’s not the amount of tourism that has altered business the most, but the ongoing understaffing problem in this area, exacerbated this year by embassy closures and visa processing backlogs because of the pandemic. These measures have limited the number of people able to travel here and work on J-1 student visas.
While many tourist destinations throughout the U.S. lost traffic during the first part of the pandemic in 2020, Lake Placid still drew a large number of tourists because of its proximity to the High Peaks and many outdoor activities.
Mayor Art Devlin attributed Lake Placid’s tourism resilience to the tight restrictions on indoor activity last year, as well as what he described as a “captive audience” in the tri-state area. Because of the 14-day post-travel quarantine requirement in place last year, many travelers from tri-state metropolitan areas journeyed to Lake Placid in lieu of their usual international or cross-country trips.
This year, though coronavirus variants are surging throughout the U.S. and reigniting fears of pandemic-related economic impacts, Jim McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, says last year’s outstanding hotel and motel occupancy numbers are a good indicator that tourism in the Lake Placid area won’t “tank.” In fact, McKenna said that data from the first six months of 2021 already reveals occupancy levels that exceed even those of 2019.
The Adirondack Mountain Club — which manages the popular Adirondak Loj trailhead and High Peaks Information Center — saw visitor numbers dip in 2020 slightly. Now, the club is seeing those numbers rise again this year, with more regional and novice hikers than before, according to ADK Deputy Director Julia Goren.
Bar and restaurant owners also reported a successful summer season. Breweries like Big Slide and the Great Adirondack Brewing Co. saw high traffic numbers, especially now that indoor seating has returned.
“Both of our restaurants were very busy. There were very few gaps in business,” said Chris Ericson, owner of the Big Slide Brewery and Lake Placid Pub.
Eddie Kane, general manager of the Great Adirondack Brewing Co., said the last two summers have brought in more business than pre-COVID years.
Brunch spot the Breakfast Club also saw steady business. Even at a 50% capacity limit last year, co-owner Heather LePere says that business seemed normal in relation to capacity, and now that they are closer to 80% capacity, they still remain steady.
Devlin, who owns Art Devlin’s Olympic Motor Inn on Main Street, said that resorts also had a good year this year, especially those that are centrally located or on the water, like the Golden Arrow.
Cristina Lussi, head of sales and marketing at the Crowne Plaza, said they were “pleasantly surprised” by their high occupancy rates, both this year and last.
“Lake Placid should be thanking their lucky stars every day,” Lussi said.
This year, Lussi guessed that most of the financial losses they experienced were a result of the continued closure of the U.S. – Canada border, which also impacted the Adirondack Mountain Club’s visitor count. However, another likely culprit for financial loss is what Lussi called the “broken record” of the understaffing crisis.
Employers across the region are having a hard time accommodating customers with more jobs going unfilled. Places like the Crowne Plaza are still missing their usual group of international workers on J-1 student visas, who often work in Lake Placid during the peak summer season and help businesses serve the influx of visitors. Art Devlin’s Olympic Motor Inn had to shift its housekeeping practices from daily to weekly for guests with extended stays. Brewery owners feel that their businesses also would have seen even more success if staff were readily available; at times, the establishments were forced to close at least one day a week to accommodate the drop in staffing.
Even though statewide COVID-19 restrictions have loosened, many local businesses are operating in a hybrid of pre-COVID practices combined with the public health recommendations released before COVID-19 vaccines were approved for use in the U.S. LePere said though the Breakfast Club could run at 100% capacity according to state policy, they are choosing to run at 80% capacity. With new variants and lingering safety concerns, she just wants to be safe. Other business owners are following suit in an effort to curb any possible spread of the virus.
Though tourists are still arriving in good numbers, more problems are arising between customers and staff.
“People are frustrated because they just want to go back to their normal lifestyle,” Lussi said.
Ericson said many of his pub employees now have to wear “hats” they wouldn’t normally wear — a restaurant hostess who once had to simply take names and estimate wait times, now also has to ensure customers are wearing their masks and maintaining proper social distance.
As the fall tourism season opens up, business owners are expecting the usual slowdown in traffic that colder weather often brings, though many expect business to stay steady with the fall wedding season and as winter sports start back up.
A national survey by Longwoods International, a market research firm, revealed that, while around 30% of Americans are canceling or postponing fall travel plans due to new COVID-19 concerns, those who do plan to travel are once again seeking outdoor activities like hiking, biking, and peeping fall colors. McKenna says this survey speaks to the promise of continued steady tourism in Lake Placid.