Once upon a time, many hoteliers and restaurateurs were looking to set booking and sales records this summer on Cape Cod, thanks to the booming economy and new regulations clipping the wings of short-term rental companies like Airbnb. 

Hoteliers and restaurateurs may yet set records this summer on the Cape – but of an entirely different sort. 

As a result of the coronavirus crisis, the Cape hospitality industry is now looking at possibly the greatest year-over-year plunge in business in recent memory, as many nervous vacationers are expected to stay at home amid the COVID-19 outbreak and as state social-distancing restrictions put a damper on business. 

Though a few tourism officials hold out hope that Cape hotels and restaurants may fare much better than current gloomy projections suggest, most subscribe to Sen. Julian Cyr’s diplomatic description of what to expect on the Cape in 2020. 

“We will have a muted summer,” Cyr, a Democrat representing the Cape & Islands, told reporters last week during a media conference call.  

Meaning: Business will be down. The only question is by how much – and no one seems to know. 

Massive Cancelations at Hotels 

As the state’s economy starts to partially reopen before the upcoming Memorial Day weekend and as business owners assess Gov. Charlie Baker’s cautious first-phase reopening restrictions announced on Monday, one thing seems sure for hotels: Practically no one expects lodging facilities to match last year’s occupancy rates of 65 percent, 74 percent and 77 percent for June, July and August, the key summer months for most hospitality-related businesses, according to Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce data. 

And they certainly don’t expect last summer’s average Cape daily room rates of $200, $277 and $288 for the same months, nor RevPAR (revenue per available room) rates of $131, $206 and $222 for June, July and August.  

They know this because of the massive summer cancellations Cape hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfast establishments endured in March, after Gov. Charlie Baker issued his statewide stay-at-home advisories. 

“We returned so many reservation [deposits], it was ghastly,” said Jeanette Robinson, owner of the sevenroom Frederick William House in Falmouth. “We had been shooting for a 5 to 10 percent increase in business this summer. It was looking like a terrific season. But then March hit.” 

Robinson didn’t say how many reservations were cancelled, but they were enough for her and others to start lowering projected summer prices in an attempt to lure tourists.  

“Oh, yeah, we’ve dropped rates,” she said, estimating average Cape room prices could fall anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent this summer. 

Gary Thulander, managing director of Chatham Bars Inn, said his sprawling resort establishment – on 25 acres of land, with 217 room in 30 buildings – was anticipating an approximate 10 percent increase in business in 2020.  

“We were looking at a record season, he said. 

Then March came – and so did the calls.  

Thulander said Chatham Bars Inn eventually had to shift 72 percent of its scheduled summer wedding and meeting events to either the fall of 2020 or 2021.  

As for summer room bookings, Thulander didn’t provide a figure on the rate of cancellations but noted: “We are definitely predicting a drop this summer.” 

Demand for lodging and home rentals has collapsed on Cape Cod, although some hope to see a small rebound thanks to domestic tourists exhausted by stay-at-home orders.

Summer Rentals Down 75 Percent 

Summer rentals of homes is also off, according to the owners of WeNeedaVacation.com, the online listing service for those renting out their homes on the Cape. 

Jeff Talmadge, co-owner of WeNeedaVacation, said advance summer bookings were up 7 percent in January and February, compared to the same months in 2019, suggesting a “decent season” ahead. Then the pandemic reared its head – and bookings are now at only one quarter of their historical levels, he said. 

Many homeowners are simply nervous about renting out their houses this summer – and risking possible virus contamination via guests – while many vacationers are worried they may catch the virus at improperly decontaminated homes, said Talmadge. 

As for restaurants, the lockdown completely or temporarily closed many year-round eateries on the Cape, depending on whether they opted to sell take-out food, as permitted under the governor’s March orders. 

Beth Colt, owner of the 150-seat Quicks Hole Tavern and the 20-seat Quicks Hole Taqueria in Woods Hole, said she planned to have both restaurants finally opened by this week, a little later than normal. Initially, the two eateries will only offer take-out food, as stipulated under the governor’s order. 

She also owns the 14-room Woods Hole Inn, a year-round establishment that had to be closed in March, and the 24-room Treehouse Lodge in Woods Hole, a seasonal establishment whose normal April opening had to be delayed due to the coronavirus crisis. 

“People are very nervous,” she said of her fellow Cape hoteliers and restaurateurs. “They’re thinking, ‘How can we make it through the summer?’” 

Arpad Voros, co-owner of the 180-seat Old Yarmouth Inn and Restaurant, said his year-round restaurant immediately switched to take-out service after the lockdown order in March. Yet, business was still off by 70 percent in March and by 60 percent in April.  

“We’re trying to claw our way back,” he said. 

Pent-Up Demand? 

Despite all the gloomy lockdown news, many in the Cape hospitality industry are nevertheless guardedly optimistic that business will pick up – and business was already showing signs of a small revival before the Memorial Day weekend. 

“There’s a pent-up demand after people have been cooped up in homes for so many weeks,” said Joan Talmadge, co-owner of WeNeedaVacation, which has recently seen a small uptick in rental listings as the summer season approaches. 

Robinson, owner of Falmouth’s Frederick William House, said she doubts international visitors, who previously made up a majority of her summer guests, will be returning in large numbers this year. 

But she said she’s somewhat optimistic that domestic travel may pick up some of the slack, for the same reasons cited by Talmadge: People are sick of being cooped up at home. 

Most hoteliers and restaurants said they’re ready to comply with any state social-distancing and safety restrictions, such as the wearing of masks and reduced occupancy rates, imposed by the state. 

“We’re very prepared,” said Chatham Bars Inn’s Thulander, noting his resort has already developed strict cleaning and social-distancing guidelines for both guests and employees. “I’m fully confident we have the right plans in place.” 

Voros, owner of the Old Yarmouth Inn and Restaurant, said his eatery is ready for – and expects – state occupancy-rate limits on establishments. “If it’s 40 to 50 percent capacity, we can make it work,” he said, adding his and other restaurant are making plans for more outdoor dining in order to increase overall capacity.  

Most agree it’s impossible to predict with accuracy exactly what will happen this summer, whether business will be down 10 percent, or 25 percent, or 50 percent or more. 

“Trying to guess, I’ve concluded, is not a good use of my brain,” said Woods Hole’s Colt. 

Cape Cod Faces ‘Muted Summer’

by Jay Fitzgerald time to read: 5 min