Butch Heffernan should be prepping his 36-room Sunburst Motel for a full house this weekend.
Instead, he spent Monday scribbling out 36 checks, refunds for the deposits guests plunked down in January for a Memorial Day weekend stay in Seaside Heights on the Jersey Shore. The beach and parts of the boardwalk have reopened, but the motel, which was sold out, found out last minute that it can’t yet open under lodging restrictions.
“We’re sorry, but it’s something beyond our control,” Heffernan told guests when he broke the news to them over the phone.
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Karen Oliver, a research chemist from Bahama, North Carolina, should be mapping out hikes and prime photo spots at Glacier National Park in Montana for a trip with her husband in June. But the couple shelved the trip last week after United canceled one of their flights and the lodge they planned to stay in changed opening dates.
“It just seemed a bit too early” to go, she said.
As the annual summer travel season kicks off Friday amid the coronavirus pandemic, travelers and the businesses that cater to them face unprecedented uncertainty, chaos and concern.
Major attractions and vacation destinations remain closed, stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions are still pervasive, and some would-be travelers are anxious about the virus and crowds or put off by new safety measures, including mandatory face masks on planes. Add in steep job losses, and the question becomes: Is summer vacation canceled this year?
The outlook is so murky AAA ditched its annual Memorial Day travel forecast this year for the first time in 20 years. All officials of the automobile club and travel agency could offer was that holiday weekend travel volume will be weak. Last year, AAA projected that 43 million Americans would travel during the long weekend, the second highest on record.
“With social distancing guidelines still in practice, this holiday weekend’s travel volume is likely to set a record low,” Paula Twidale, AAA’s senior vice president of travel,said in a statement.
There are glimmers of hope travel demand is picking up, especially for last-minute trips, as restrictions are eased in some states and airlines, hotels, vacation rentals, car rental companies, cruise lines and attractions trot out amped-up safety measures.
Southwest CEO: No evidence ‘people won’t be traveling’
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly isn’t writing off summer. He said there is no evidence, beyond extrapolating the dismal travel trends since the outbreak began, that “people won’t be traveling for vacation.”
The airline has “decent bookings” for July, he told Wall Street analysts in late April, and June bookings are running ahead of muted expectations, the airline said in a securities filing Tuesday. Southwest, which launched a monthlong fare sale in mid-May, expects to fill 35% to 45% of its seats in June, compared with 8% in April. Delta and United also expressed optimism, Delta saying it’s adding back 100 more flights than initially expected in June.
The big question, airlines said, is whether travelers stick with their plans or cancel their trips as has happened en masse at all airlines since the pandemic began.
Louisville mom on the fence: ‘This virus is so weird that you just don’t know what’s going to happen‘
Helen Keeney-Klump is on the fence. The Louisville, Kentucky, teacher is supposed to visit Madeira Beach, Florida, in mid-July for a week, her family’s first beach vacation in four years.
Her biological father, with whom she reunited last year, organized the 20-person family reunion and booked tickets on Southwest and a beachfront condo for the high school special education teacher, her husband and 6-year-old son. They’ve talked about visiting Legoland Florida and going on a big boat tour with the whole group.
The trip is still nearly two months away, but it looks increasingly likely they won’t go.
Keeney-Klump is worried about the virus, especially reports of a COVID-related inflammatory disease affecting children. She keeps close tabs on the trends in Kentucky and Florida.
“This virus is so weird that you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “We’re really in unknown waters with this whole thing.”
The rest of the group plans to go, no matter what, she said, but the Louisville family will make their decision by July 1.
“If I had to decide today, I would say we would not go,” she said.
The family has discussed driving 13 hours instead of flying to Florida, but that brings its own challenges, including two nights in roadside hotels.
“We’ve been brainstorming about ways to make it work,” she said, “but kind of realize, at the end of the day, it just may not.
“Are we disappointed about it? Absolutely. This was a great opportunity to have not only a beautiful beach vacation but reconcile … with this side of my family,” she said. “If it doesn’t happen this summer, it can happen next summer hopefully.”
Kelly said the reopening of the country, especially tourist attractions, national parks, restaurants and other things vacationers crave, will be a big determinant in how summer business shapes up.
“That will put vacationers in a position where they can be more confident that, ‘Hey, I can go somewhere fun, and there will be something to do when I get there,’ ” he said.
Kelly cited his family as an example of what he sees as pent-up travel demand.
“They are determined that we’re going to the beach in July for vacation, and I’ve got to believe that we’re one of many,” he said. “It just remains to be seen whether or not that will materialize.”
Any improvement will be welcome for the battered airline industry, which has grounded more than half its planes, slashed flights and warned of looming layoffs.
Executives cautioned that it’s too early to draw any conclusions from their early summer bookings or Transportation Security Administration data showing steady increases in the number of passengers traveling through airport checkpoints because they are rebounding from historic lows. Passenger counts are still down more than 90%.
“We’re still a fraction of where we should be at this time of year,” Delta Chief Financial Officer Paul Jacobson said in an investor presentation Tuesday.
Michigan, New Hampshire trips a no-go for New Jersey family: ‘I think it adds anxiety’
Keith Cook has made up his mind about summer vacation. He canceled two planned summer vacations this month to avoid cancellation penalties.
The university assistant dean, who lives in New Jersey with his teacher wife and 4-year-old daughter, was supposed to spend several nights on the water in Traverse City, Michigan, in mid-July with his brother’s family, followed by an annual cousins’ trip in late July, this year to Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire.
Water sports, beach time, fishing, hiking, amusement park rides and dining out were all on the agenda.
The problem, Cook said: They didn’t know what was going to be open or what social distancing on a beach might look like as crowds have flocked to beaches along the East Coast as they’ve opened.
Another concern about the Michigan trip was traveling in a “closed environment” on a plane. Cook is a frequent flyer but was worried about flying with a young child.
The bottom line: They didn’t want to be stressed and have to be on their toes at every turn.
“It think it adds anxiety,” he said. “The reality is our idea of family vacation is to get away and have some fun, unplug.”
Hotel business ticks up: ‘Guests are starting to want to feel normalcy’
Like airlines, hotels are starting to see a slight uptick in business. Stats from industry tracker STR show occupancy gradually increasing each week, from 21% in early April to 32.4% last week.
Claudia Ludlow, general manager of the 100-room Glorietta Bay Inn across the street from award-winning Coronado Beach in Coronado, California, said bookings bottomed out in April.
The historic hotel was at 10% occupancy in April, is closing in on 60% for Memorial Day weekend and is almost sold out for the July Fourth weekend. The hotel draws the biggest percentage of its summer visitors from neighboring Arizona, where residents are a 5½-hour drive from the beach and a break from the triple-digit temperatures at home.
“Guests are starting to want to feel normalcy,” she said.
When she fields calls on the inn’s reservations line, Ludlow said, she feels more like a therapist than a hotel manager.
“The desperation of wanting to get away is really itching at them,” she said.
Heffernan said his adult son, who helps out at the Sunburst in the summer, told him to focus on July and August since May is a goner, and it’s unclear what will be allowed in June despite three sold-out weekends. The motel is open from May through October.
“He said, ‘Dad, you could wind up with the best summer ever. … These people are going stir-crazy. They’ve got to get out,’ ” Heffernan said.
Heffernan, who opened the motel in 1984 and weathered the fallout from Superstorm Sandy in 2012, is confident July and August will be “good.” How good will depend on whether some vacationers remain skittish about crowds.
“They’re apprehensive about being around a bunch of strangers, so who knows what to expect?” he said.
Family hopes for a resort getaway – if the budget allows
Amy Spaulding, a corporate event planner in Southern California, has her eyes on a summer visit to the luxe Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort in Arizona.
California extended its stay-at-home order through July, and a desert getaway with pools and restaurants is appealing, she said.
“The idea of going to Nevada or Arizona to be able to jump in a pool and go dining and actually have some freedom and enjoyment sounds really great,” she said.
Plane tickets aren’t required, and summer room rates are a fraction of peak season prices because of the searing heat. Still, a Scottsdale getaway might be out of the budget this year, she said.
Spaulding’s business dried up as businesses canceled meetings and special events for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t have any income right now,” she said.
Spaulding, who is married with a teenage daughter, said the family is trying to be careful with money, so they might end up staying home.
They are fortunate to have taken a family vacation to New York City and the Caribbean in January before the coronavirus outbreak arrived in the USA.
“We kind of lucked out,” she said.
Boat operator counts on demand as restrictions ease
Terry MacRae, founder and CEO of Hornblower Group, which operates sightseeing tours, dining cruises, ferries and river cruises on its 200 boats around the country, is cautiously optimistic about summer 2020.
The San Francisco company generates two-thirds of its business from June to September, so it needs to get its boats running as soon as possible.
As national parks start to reopen, the company hopes to resume its popular cruise tours to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco and the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York.
“They’re on the horizon,” he said. “They’re not indefinite anymore.”
MacRae expects city boat tours will pick up before upscale dinner cruises, especially from locals and regional visitors sticking closer to home.
“The people in the Chicago area, the moment they can, they will be rushing to Navy Pier, and they will be rushing down to the (Chicago) River,” he said. “I think the last couple times (when travel demand plummeted), we called that a staycation. I don’t know what the term will be this time.”
MacRae said the benchmark for 2020 won’t be profitability. The company counted 30 million passengers last year and won’t come close to that this year. International travelers, a major source of business, are out of the mix during travel restrictions.
“It will be extremely difficult to be profitable this year,” he said. “Just surviving it will feel good.”
Europe vacation off, but road trip still on
Now that their kids are out of college, 2020 was going to be a big travel year for Oliver and her husband, Tony.
In addition to the Glacier National Park trip, they had two tickets to Germany in April. Airline flight cancellations axed that trip, too.
Another trip, to Oak Island, North Carolina, in July is still on. It’s a four-hour drive, and they’ll stay in a beach cottage alongside other family members for a reunion she’s attended since she was 16. They’re not sure about beach or other restrictions but aren’t worried it will wreck their plans.
“I guess if we can’t do too much on the beach, we can see the ocean,” she said. “We’re pretty set on this trip and feel very comfortable about this one.”
The only thing coronavirus has changed about the trip is the new layer of advance preparation.
“Our planning is usually where we’re going to stay and what trails are we going to hike,” she said. “Now it’s becoming: Are we even going to be able to go, and what do we need to think about, like groceries and supplies?”
Oliver has been combing Oak Island websites for information on restrictions and reopening phases and came across a reminder about potential shortages of grocery store staples.
“OK, that means toilet paper, so that will be something we definitely have to think of,” she said.
After Oak Island, the couple were due to visit Isle Royale National Park in Michigan in August. Oliver has been keeping an eye on reopening plans for the seasonal park and got bad news this week: The ferry service and lodge at the park won’t be open this season.
“If not this time, then we’ll take a rain check,” she said.
Tempting airfare deals to Canada, but not clicking buy – yet
Dwight Stockham watches for flight deals between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Winnepeg, Canada, and has seen some screaming summer offers.
Tickets that usually run about $600 round trip are going for $340, he said.
Stockham, a semiretired engineer, returns to Canada, where he grew up and his siblings and other relatives still live, every summer for two to four weeks for vacation. He retains dual citizenship.
“I only go back in the summer because the winters are too cold,” he said. “55 below is too cold.”
He still hasn’t clicked “buy” on United Airlines’ website.
Stockham said he’s worried about getting a refund if he can’t make the trip and doesn’t know what to expect in terms of possible quarantines or other restrictions. This week, President Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, extended the land border closure until June 22.
“I’m going to wait til I hear more,” Stockham said.
If he doesn’t go to Canada, it will be the first time in 45 years.
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