This spring, resort owners faced many uncertainties due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While there have been some cancellations and a lot of additional cleaning requirements, owners are finding ways to make this a special summer for their guests in creative ways.

Kim Bowen of Crow Wing Crest Lodge, near Akeley, and Mary Schiebe of Knotty Pines Resort on Boulder Lake, near Dorset, shared some of their struggles and successes so far this season.

Coping with cancellations

Bowen said they received 41 cancellations in the past month, mostly from people who were reluctant to fly to Minnesota or who had been planning to gather as a large group. Of the 19 cabins booked for Memorial Day weekend, 16 guests cancelled. “By finding new people, we ended up with 12 cabins rented,” she said.

The next weekend, all 19 cabins were booked for a big spring healing retreat that was cancelled. This time, they were only able to re-book six cabins.

“I understand not everyone is able to come this year,” Bowen said. “The reason we became resort owners is to enhance people’s well-being. If coming up here is going to be a risk, I want them to stay home and be safe.”

The biggest cabins are taking the biggest hit with cancellations. “In the 11 weeks that we consider to be our summer season, we had five weeks cancelled in our big reunion cabin which was painful,” she said. “I also had a few cancellations from people who are scared to travel.”

The Schiebes are in their 14th season as owners of Knotty Pines Resort. They have had only one cancellation in their 11 cabins. “It’s been amazing,” Mary said. “We get calls almost every day from people wanting reservations.”

Most of their guests are from Minnesota. “We have quite a few repeats, along with some who are coming for the first time,” she said.

Keeping guests safe

Staff at Crow Wing Crest are doing lots of extra cleaning, including adding a buffer time of 24 hours after cleaning before a cabin is used again.

“That further hampers our availability, but it’s safer for guests,” Bowen said. “We’re a green resort and use natural cleaning products approved by the Centers for Disease Control, so a three percent solution of hydrogen peroxide is sprayed on all surfaces and left to air dry. Staff wipe down all of the touch points in each cabin, including door knobs, lamp poles, light switches, refrigerators, mattress pads and more. Each bag of bedding is completely sanitized and guests make their own bed. Sanitizing stations are located throughout the resort. Since the lodge is closed, we are using it to stack double sets of pillows. We are trying to do as much as we can to protect our staff and guests.”

Schiebe said they are doing the same thorough cleaning at Knotty Pines that they have always done. “We’re making sure our cleaners are well protected with gloves and masks and make sure to hit all of the touch point areas with disinfectant,” she said. “I think most of our guests feel confident in traveling. Most are driving, but a few have flown in.”

Finding the silver lining

Bowen said Crow Wing Crest has been getting a lot of last-minute phone calls for stays of two or three nights from people who can drive here within two to four hours.

“In the bigger picture, I’m trying to look at the silver lining,” she said. “Maybe it’s all about introducing people to the resort who never had the opportunity to come here before.”

The resort is trying different strategies to fill cabins such as AirBnB and encouraging guests who are coming to extend their stay when the cabin is available longer.

“I’m hanging in there,” Kim said. “I think those who can come safely are really increasing their well-being by coming here where they can enjoy the great outdoors. People are laughing and saying they’re happy and grateful that they are here.”

New ways of ‘doing summer’

Crow Wing Crest also devised ways to offer activities while social distancing, including painting and yoga on the lawn, craft baggies delivered to cabins, solo scavenger hunts, and virtual sandcastle and kids’ fishing events.

“All throughout the week, kids can do these activities and have their parents email pictures to Instagram,” Bowen said.

There is a take-out window for pizza, pop, ice cream and candy so everyone can have their favorite summer treats.

Bowen said things are looking up for July and August. “We’ve rebooked some weeks, so that’s promising,” she said. “I’m hoping that some folks that are not willing to fly might instead choose a place they can drive to so we’ll get more locals.”

Changes at Knotty Pines this season include cancelling group activities and closing the game room. The office and store remain open.

“On the beach, we ask guests to be considerate of social distancing,” Schiebe said. “We encourage our guests to get outdoors as much as possible.”

Each guest has their own campfire ring, which makes social distancing easier.

“During the day families are usually busy doing their own things,” she said. “My grandchildren who are visiting are out in the water a lot, and we’ve been playing card games on the rainy days.”

Benefits of getting away

Bowen said getting away from the stress of their everyday lives is one reason guests are coming.

“We really believe that getting into nature at a cabin by the lake is a major benefit to mental, physical and spiritual well-being,” she said. “Our chipmunks make people laugh. When the kids come they have so much pent up energy. They get to run and play. It helps people take back a little bit of control of their lives and make new memories with their families.”

Schiebe said a recent guest is a nurse who lives in North Dakota. “She said this was exactly what she needed – to get away and not feel like she’s smothering wearing a face mask at work,” she said. “Our guests can just relax and enjoy being here.”

Occupancy high at Mantrap Lodge

At Mantrap Lodge near Emmaville, occupancy is about what it would be in a typical summer. “Most people are coming so far,” owner Andrew Hansen said. “Overall, less than 10 percent of those with reservations are cancelling and I’ve probably picked up about as many new reservations from people who were thinking of traveling out of state and want to stay in state.”

Hansen said their regular out-of-state guests are still mostly coming as well. “Most of the cancellations are for the large groups that have multiple families staying in the same cabin and are not comfortable doing that at this point,” he said. “There are also some people whose work will not allow them to travel, or those whose jobs require them to quarantine for two weeks if they travel, who are cancelling.”

In order to open, the resort had to get rid of the comforters and buy blankets for all of the beds before the season started.“You have to turn everything over every time and launder everything every week,” he said.

As owners, he said he and his wife Charlotte have been doing extra work to make sure their guests are safe following protocols from the Minnesota Department of Health.

“We provide sanitizer spray and wipes for our guests to use at the pool and playground, those types of areas,” he said. “We also go around every day and sanitize those common areas. With fewer activities, that frees us up to do more cleaning. We also get up a little earlier and work a little later.”

He said because of the guidelines this summer has a different feeling, but they are keeping as many of their resort traditions as possible.

Mantrap Lodge stays open until sometime in October.

“People don’t know what to expect, especially those traveling here from a different area,” he said. “We’ve had guests ask us if the locals accept people coming in, or is there negativity towards them. I tell them Park Rapids accepts those coming in and reassure them things are moving forward. There are a lot more cars on Main Street as things have started to open up.It’s busy and feels more normal now than a month ago when things were pretty quiet.”

Hansen said most people wear masks in the lodge. “The rest of the time there’s enough room that people can spread out far enough that it’s not an issue,” he said.

Weddings, reunions postponed

Robyn Capistrant, manager at the Red Bridge Inn in Park Rapids, said she feels “absolutely horrible” about how the inn’s season is progressing. “I literally lost every wedding and every family reunion that I had because, obviously, the (guests) couldn’t come together.”

On the bridal side, that meant no trying on dresses, no showers, none of the customary gatherings. As for the reunions, she said, “families just aren’t comfortable getting together with half the family unable to make it.”

Another hit to the inn’s business was a reduction in overnight stays by doctors and physicians’ assistants, who usually work a couple days a week at a clinic in town.

Nevertheless, she admitted that she received a couple last-minute bookings last weekend, which are unusual in her experience. Normally, she said, guests plan and book in advance.

“I don’t usually get people saying, ‘I’m on my way. I’ll be there in an hour. Can I get a room?’” she said. “I’m hoping that becomes a trend for the rest of the summer.”

Overall, it’s been “a very, very unusual season,” Capistrant said. “Much slower than we’re used to. We’re just making the best of it, I guess, and hoping that there’s not a repeat (of COVID-19) and that it doesn’t flare up again this fall. (We’re) hoping for the summer to brighten up a little bit and continue into the fall.”

More optimism

Now retired from resorting, Jennifer Bateman owned the Two Inlets Resort for more than 20 years as well as another resort in Remer, and is a past president of the Community of Minnesota Resorts.

Based on her connections within the resorter community, Bateman said that compared to April, “resort owners in general are much more optimistic, recognizing that it probably won’t be their best year ever. But with a lot of hard work and good advertising, they should come out OK.”

Cancellations continue to be a concern, however, as some guests still cannot travel out of state due to their states’ or their employers’ quarantine rules – such as, not being eligible for paid time off during the two-week quarantine period after they return.

Would-be guests aren’t concerned about their health and safety while staying at a resort, so much as the trip up from Nebraska or Illinois, she said. There have also been cases where guests could only find round-trip flights running Wednesday to Wednesday, while resort stays run from Saturday to Saturday.