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Resort-area businesses struggle to keep lights on even during the holiday weeks 

By Katy Savage

While lodges and restaurants in Killington would normally be operating at full capacity this time of year, some establishments are down as much as 80%, due in part to the pandemic and the late start to the winter season.

Kayla Bouffard, the innkeeper at the Vermont Inn in Mendon, said she was at capacity until Gov. Phil Scott announced just before Thanksgiving that all out of state residents would be required to quarantine for 14 days or seven days with a negative Covid test before coming to Vermont.

“With the governor’s regulations, we lost everybody,” Bouffard said. “We’re typically booked up like a month in advance, right now we have nobody on the books pretty much all winter.”

Bouffard said many of her guests can’t quarantine and she’s at about 20% capacity during what is typically one of the busiest weeks of the year.

Josh Eckler, the owner of the Trailside Inn in Killington, also said he’s lost 80% of business over the holiday week.

“People are not booking,” he said. “We would have been sold out for the week by Thanksgiving in a normal year.”

Lodges must require guests to attest to quarantining by signing a waiver when they check in.

In addition to the stricter travel requirements, Scott issued an executive order on Nov. 14 to prohibit people from gathering with those they don’t live with. Bars were also ordered to close.

“It’s not going to be a good year,” said Sal Salmeri, the owner of the Nite Spot Pizza and Mogul’s Sports Pub & Restaurant. He said he’s lost 60% of his business.

“All we seem to be doing is spending money on heat and payroll,” Salmeri said.

Salmeri said restaurants were being unfairly burdened by the state’s mitigation measures.

“They’re not getting [Covid] from the restaurant, they’re getting it from the ski houses and private parties,” Salmeri said. “I still say you can get it just as easily at Walmart.”

Salmeri said the quarantine requirement was “destroying the small businesses in Killington.” He was also concerned about his employees not getting their usual holiday tips.

“I think of the workers — they’re the ones that are going to feel it the most this year … they can’t buy their families as much for Christmas.”

Casey’s Caboose General Manager Mike Drayton said he’s had to be flexible to keep up with the shifting demands from the governor’s office.

“We take it one executive order at a time,” Drayton said. “We try to keep people safe.”

Phil Black, the owner of the Lookout Tavern, echoed that sentiment.

“We sit there everyday with a pen and pencil and listen to [the governor],” Black said. “We roll the changes into our business plan. It’s difficult, it’s expensive. You’re building and changing and minimizing. Hopefully at some point we turn a corner and things relax a little bit.”

Part of the issue has also been a slow start to the winter season. Killington Resort, which boasts opening the earliest in the East and closing the latest, didn’t open until late November this season.

“I think the virus is crippling but winter coming on so late has hurt just as much,” Black said. “People aren’t going out, they’re doing what they have to do to keep safe and we respect that.”

Temperatures were mild and snowfall was minimal this season until winter seemingly arrived in full force on Thursday, Dec. 17, with parts of southern Vermont seeing a record 44 inches of snowfall.

“The snow certainly got the phones to ring,” North Star Lodge owner Dean Romano said.

Romano estimated the lodge is down 35% in business from the previous year.

“We’re not doing terrible, but we’re not doing great, either,” he said.

Patty McGrath, the owner of the Inn at Long Trail, laughed when asked about business for Christmas week, but was optimistic for a busy late season.

“I think this snow may improve things,” she said.

Others may not open at all this season. The Red Clover Inn posted on Instagram, Dec. 19: “Unfortunately, we will not be  open for the holidays, and we are not offering Christmas and New Year’s dinner this year. We are keeping an eye on travel restriction and Covid numbers. We have not yet decided when we will open back up but will be sure to keep you posted… be well everyone. Here’s to 2021.”

While inns are hurting, short-term rentals are maintaining business, as people seek to avoid congregate settings, such as hotel lobbies.

Mike Coppinger, the general manager of the Killington Group, which manages about 50 properties, said phones have been “ringing off the hook” since the snow came.

“Mother Nature definitely helped us out on Thursday,” he said. “People don’t want to intermix with folks in common areas like you would in a hotel. Houses are the first to go, followed by condos.”

To minimize visitors this year, Killington and other resorts are requiring guests to make reservations before coming. At Killington and Pico capacity is limited by parking reservation; at Okemo (owned by Vail Resorts) skiers have to make a reservation to ski. Capacity in both cases is based on the amount of open terrain.

Traffic on Killington Road has been busy despite the capacity restrictions, but retailers on the road are seeing less business as well.

Dave Manning, the owner of Black Dog Sports, has been relying on loyal clientele.

“We’re not setting records but we’re keeping the lights on,” Manning said. “We’re treading water with the best of them.”

Darkside Snowboards General Manager Tucker Zink said he’s doing more online orders, while Peak Performance ski technician Jeff Olson said business is mediocre.

“It’s probably quite a bit less busy — not slow, but less busy,” Olson said.

Some are trying to shift their business model.

Bouffard, from the Vermont Inn, is trying to launch a campaign to encourage Vermont residents to staycation at local lodges.

“A lot of people might be cooped up at this point,” she said.

Bouffard wants to get other hotels involved to start a “stay in Vermont” campaign.

“Right now we are in the works of talking about what we’re going to do,” she said with a bit more hope in her tone.

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