By Susan E. Campbell
The long Memorial Day weekend at the end of May marks the beginning of summer each year and with it, traditionally, comes an influx of consumers on which many Lake George businesses depend.
But this year has been overshadowed by coronavirus pandemic. Village Mayor Robert Blais was concerned about whether the community, one of upstate’s most popular tourist areas, would draw its usual surge of visitors.
“I wondered if people would take the time and expense to come here and rent a room and then find enough to do,” he said.
The weekend proved to draw good-sized crowds and hotels were busy. The mayor attributed the success of the weekend to Lake George itself.
“The water is consoling and mesmerizing,” Blais said. “Never before have we learned how important it is to have that lake. What saved us was the state opening up Million Dollar Beach.”
“People came from other parts of the state as if it was going to be different here, but we had to explain that we were still in Phase I” of the state’s reopening, said Gina Mintzer, executive director of Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Generally speaking, everyone was respectful of social distancing and about nine out of 10 wore face masks during the holiday weekend, she said.
“People were very responsible guests and so were businesses,” she said. “While it was not a ‘normal’ weekend, the business community had been practicing new safety protocols and now it was ‘real life.’”
Whereas foot traffic in the days prior was sparse around the Village, Blais said the beach and Battleground Park drew crowds as people walked, went swimming, took boat rides, had picnics and enjoyed the scenery. Even the new dog park was packed, he said.
To comply, it was necessary that the village invest $16,000 in a fence around the beach to control the influx, he said.
Only half the normal amount of visitors are allowed in public places as New York progressively reopens. Blais said Million Dollar Beach was busy for two days during the long weekend. On the third day, they had to turn some away per the state’s guidelines.
“We wanted all to know—the employees, the guests and the community—that preparations exceeded state and federal guidelines,” said Michael Bittel, executive director of Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“Guests knew that if they went across the street to a different hotel that it would live up to the same quality level,” he said. “The hoteliers put competitiveness aside and it warmed my heart.”
“We have learned the strength of working with each other, because Lake George is a family of family businesses,” Mintzer said. “If we are taking care of staff, then they are taking care of our neighbors, and they can take care of our guests.”
Minter said that early on in the new world of COVID-19, the restaurant community came together with best practices for service, outdoor seating and other issues specific to food and beverage businesses.
After the weekend, Mintzer conducted a video meeting among Lake George chamber members. She said there were 30 respondents, of which nearly half were hotels and a third were restaurants.
“Our goal was to make sure a safety plan was in place, to assess where customers were coming from and to learn how many visitors were new to area,” she said.
Financially these establishments were at approximately 20 percent of last year’s levels, or an 80 percent drop from last year, she said. Another key finding was that 96 percent of customers surveyed reported that they felt safe.
“The chamber encouraged hotels to let their guests to know in advance how the client experience was going to be different,” Mintzer said. “What we got out of this is that people were pleased to see additional protocols in place and appreciated special training among the staff.”
“Additionally, many saw an influx of new guests, so word is getting out about Lake George,” she said.
In early June the Lake George business community was adjusting to the cancellation of Americaide. Mayor Blais said he was pleased to learn that people in large numbers came anyway.
“We asked them why, and they explained their vacations had been scheduled weeks ago and reservations made,” he said. “They came to see the people they had built friendships with over the years.”
“Our challenge now is to make sure we are not moving forward too quickly, or are moving quickly enough to re-open the economy,” Mintzer said. “Since we are inviting visitors to the area, we want to make sure everybody is operating responsibly while reassuring our neighbors and guests.”
By Susan E. Campbell