With temperatures warming up and summer right around the corner, tourism in the Alexandria Lakes Area should be picking up. The resort industry, under normal circumstances, would soon be buzzing with activity.
But under the governor’s stay-at-home order and amid the coronavirus pandemic, like many businesses, the resort industry is taking a hard hit.
“It’s a challenging time,” said Tara Bitzan, executive director of the Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. “We are trying to be responsible and not really encourage travel. It’s a tough situation. Really tough.”
Bitzan said many resort owners are apprehensive and fearful of what their season is going to look like. For most resort owners, the summer tourism season is their livelihood and how they pay the bills, she said.
This coming weekend, which is the fishing opener, many resorts are getting ready to open, preparing cabins along with the rest of their facilities.
Last week, Gov. Tim Walz provided a little more guidance for the opening of resorts, RV parks and campgrounds, which was outlined in an update sent out by State Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria.
Those guidelines, said Bitzan, took some of the weight off resort owners. They included the fact that resorts can be open and that guests do not have to be members of the critical sector. Communal amenities, however, cannot be open except for retail food stores, laundry facilities and fishing cleaning stations and docks. They can be open provided social distancing and enhanced cleaning protocols are followed.
Although these guidelines have been set in place, the governor’s stay-at-home order continues to discourage unnecessary travel.
Changes taking place
Cami Calhoun, who owns Geneva Beach Resort with her husband, Craig, said Geneva Beach Resort will still be opening on the date they had previously set, which is May 18, but some changes will be taking place.
The game room, for example, will not be open yet, which Calhoun said was sad as over the winter, it was completely renovated and upgraded.
And although the resort already has rigorous cleaning protocols in place, Calhoun said they are doing even more as an extra layer of safety for not only their guests, but also their staff. She said there will be sanitizing stations in place, which she hopes will give an extra peace of mind to people visiting the resort. The resort received 10 gallons of sanitizer from Panther Distillery in Osakis.
Another change put into place is that only one family at a time will be allowed to use the fish cleaning station and the resort will be promoting and practicing social distancing. Guests, she said, will now be able to do contactless check-ins and check-outs.
When the stay-at-home order was put into place back in March, Calhoun said they had to shut down Sugar Bush Lodge, which is used for large groups – family vacations, family reunions, and corporate retreats.
“It’s been closed since March 15. That hurt,” said Calhoun. “We relied on that heavily.”
Most people who had that lodge booked, have had to cancel, she said.
On a positive note, however, Calhoun said they have not taken any cancellations for the summer months. She said they have received many phone calls because people are wondering what they are doing and if they are still open. She also said she recently received three reservations for June.
“That was the first in a month and it felt so good,” she said.
As for the beach area, which Calhoun said is a private beach and only used for resort guests, they are waiting to hear further recommendations from the state and the Department of Natural Resources.
“Our beach is large so social distancing will work well,” she said. “But what it will look like for our guests at this point, we don’t know yet. We will be watching to see what the orders are.”
Arrowwood Resort and Conference Center, which is open year-round and relies just as much on group conferences and business as it does summer tourism, has been hit hard by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the stay-at-home orders.
According to Shari Prause, director of sales and marketing and interim general manager, the resort has been drastically impacted and has felt a significant loss. For April, it lost about 95% of its usual business and for May, it will be about 90%. Additionally, it had to lay off about 95% of its staff. She said there are fewer than 20 people currently working at the resort.
“It’s been challenging,” she said. “We are a tight-knit work family and this has been like breaking up a family. It’s been hard.”
Prause can’t wait for the stay-at-home order to be lifted and for business to go back to normal – or new normal.
“I can’t wait for all the noise, kids playing in the hall, seeing our guests and all of our staff members back to work,” she said.