Finger Lakes tourism a bright spot amid pandemic

Julie Sherwood
 |  Canandaigua Daily Messenger

Nationally, the leisure and hospitality industry has taken a big hit during the pandemic — suffering more than one-third of all job losses in the country, according to a U.S. Travel Association report prepared by Tourism Economics.

While the Finger Lakes region is facing its share of economic strain, tourism leaders report the region is weathering the storm better than many other places.

“It’s a very challenging time,” said Jayden Donahue, technical specialist for applied learning and internships at Finger Lakes Community College, in leading a webinar with local tourism leaders. The brainstorming session Nov. 4 was part of the Business to Business series developed by the FLCC Workforce and Career Solutions Office.

Positive signs

Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance President Cindy Kimble said a survey from its database of 65,000 in the region’s industry showed visitors are still coming to the area, tending to postpone rather than cancel visits. In addition, mid-week traffic is up, “which we have not seen as much before,” she said.

Kimble said hotels are experiencing longer stays, increasing from a typical 2.5 nights to 3.5 or even 5 nights, as one hotel reported. In other positive signs, data shows more first-time visitors. Kimble said that’s good news because data shows that 62 % of new visitors return the following year.

At Finger Lakes Visitors Connection, Director of Sales Tracey Burkey said the agency has shifted focus from “almost pandemic survival mode to recovery mode.” Businesses took advantage of the organization’s program providing sanitary marketing and materials, she said. An online training program is helping frontline workers keep up with safety and protocol measures, she added.

While places with larger cities are facing more challenges, Burkey said Ontario County has its rural environment going for it.

“We can host smaller groups and are better able to social distance,” said Burkey. 

“I feel we live in a little bubble in the Finger Lakes,” said Paula Knight, instructor and coordinator of the Hospitality and Tourism Management program at FLCC. She said people “are thinking differently about visiting the area.” Knight said the Hospitality and Tourism Management program saw increased enrollment, a sign that people continue to recognize hospitality and tourism as a viable industry.

Todd Sloane, FLCC director of workforce development, said that skills needed in the field are changing.

“There’s a big emphasis on on-the-job training, especially for advancement in a field,” he said. The college is focused on training and working with partners in workforce development and the hospitality industry, he said.

The innovation and creativity of business owners came up as a big topic.

Joe Hurley, co-owner of Kettle Ridge Farm in Victor, talked about his success with activities such as the farm’s drive-thru brunch and picnic — a grab-and-go or picnic out in the field — outdoor “Sappy Hours” and other safe and popular events. 

Paul Brock, co-owner of Silver Thread Vineyard on Seneca Lake, said the winery changed its business model. The winery offers tastings by appointment and recently began offering indoor, private wine tasting that takes one party at a time in one of its separate tasting rooms.

Burkey mentioned The Central on Main in Canandaigua, which created an outdoor dining popup in downtown Canandaigua. In other bright spots, the city saw the opening of The Lake House on Canandaigua, a 125-room hotel on the lake featuring an event barn, outdoor pool, destination spa, wellness center, signature restaurant and return of the long popular lakeside Sand Bar.

Eagerly anticipated is the opening next spring of the five-story Canandaigua Finger Lakes Resort at Steamboat Landing, which will feature 111 hotel rooms, 44 luxury waterfront condominiums, a destination spa with wellness programs, outdoor pool, banquet facilities and the replica 19th-century paddle boat, the Canandaigua Lady.

Preparing for winter, several people mentioned restaurants in the region that have installed outdoor heated areas and added wind barriers and other features to attract patrons in colder weather. 

Challenges

Hurley talked about the challenge of managing larger crowds. The social gathering rule permits up to 50 people. Hurley said it can be hard to control large gatherings, when he finds people tend to feel free to hug and be close to each other.

There’s the strain on businesses that have lost employees to the pandemic. Discussion turned to business owners having to lay off workers. In many cases those workers are not coming back. Some workers shifted to working in home care or contact tracing. Kimble said the loss of workers has meant some owners having to work the front lines on a daily basis.

The Finger Lakes region, for tourism purposes, encompasses 14 counties and 9,000 square miles. Kimble said parts of the southern section of the region, which include Chemung and Steuben counties, are “seeing a bit of an outbreak” with COVID-19, which is hurting business.

Knight and others talked about building consumer confidence. Some businesses are offering customers “sanitary kits” that contain hand sanitizer and similar products. Many businesses are going the extra mile to demonstrate their diligence about wiping down surfaces, adhering to mask and social distancing guidelines and other safety measures. Knight said creativity and building confidence for consumers is key.

“We need to make sure we have that,” she said.

About the talk

This webinar was part of the FLCC Business to Business series, which offers short-term job training in manufacturing and health care. The next information session on FLCC’s manufacturing programs will be held online on Wednesday, Nov. 18, from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Registration is required online at events.flcc.edu. Contact the Workforce and Career Solutions Office at [email protected]<mailto:[email protected]> or call 585-785-1670.