America’s travel industry will suffer nearly $505 billion in losses in 2020, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Travel Association. North Carolina’s Crystal Coast and nearby mainland counties depend on summer beachcombers’ revenue and taxes. But businesses there seem to be enduring COVID-19 and its economic downturn much better than the U.S. as a whole.
Trace Cooper serves as the mayor of Atlantic Beach, the easternmost town on Bogue Banks. He’s grateful for vacationers’ turnout this summer at this island in the heart of the Crystal Coast.
“My company owns one restaurant, and I’ve talked to a lot of other restaurant owners,” Cooper said. “They are doing either on par or better than last year, even with restrictions. I also hear from many retailers that it’s a year on par with others.”
The island’s movie theaters were closed in March. That early shutdown hit one theater in Atlantic Beach and another in Emerald Isle (Bogue Banks’s westernmost town). The vacation rental industry, however, seems to have suffered no real dip in bookings.
Kelly Nicholson, a property manager for Emerald Isle Realty, concurs. Her company has been overseeing seasonal rentals for more than 58 years and now manages more than 650 vacation properties. “Usually at this time of year, we have 100% occupancy, and we do again this year,” Nicholson said.
But how they got to that figure took a slightly worrisome path. “We had a lot of cancellations in April and May,” Nicholson said, “but then as soon as Governor Cooper reopened the state, around May 8, all the cancellations started filling in immediately. By June 1, we were at 100% occupancy again.”
Crystal Coast Businesses Adapted Within State Guidelines
Despite the high number of visitors to the Crystal Coast, both Cooper and Nicholson note that businesses have made changes.
“We are following state executive orders requiring restaurants to seat at only half capacity,” said Cooper. “Generally, they’re making up for the lower capacity dining spaces by doing a ton of takeout orders. And with the beach, it’s a naturally low-density setting and people are happy to spread out.”
Nicholson noted that Emerald Isle Realty employees wear masks during the check-in process and have set several cleanliness guidelines. “Even before the cancellations started coming in, we knew we were going to have to make some changes. We wanted to give our renters a message of comfort.
“Our properties are always clean,” Nicholson said, “but we developed a manual on how we clean, and we released that to the public. All of our staffers and contractors follow the public health guidelines and change to fresh gloves with every residence they clean.”
“We also changed our linen program to include white comforters and toppers so that all linens are fresh from the laundry weekly, not just sheets,” Nicholson said. “And we changed our check-out time to 9 a.m. from 10 a.m., and moved check-in back to 5 p.m., to give our cleaning staff more time to sanitize.”
On the road again: consumers stick to their cars.
The U.S. Travel Association has also reported that due to COVID-19, Americans surveyed report they feel more comfortable traveling for vacation in their own vehicles. Nicholson agrees, given her out-of-state vacation cancellations.
She said that during the last half of July, Emerald Isle Realty received another wave of rental cancellations. “Just this past week, we’ve been getting renters from New York and New Jersey calling to cancel August reservations,” Nicholson said. “But if we have something canceled in the morning, it will often have been filled again by that afternoon, and usually it’s by someone from North Carolina or Virginia.
“I don’t have an actual study of numbers, but from my view, we have a greater proportion of renters from nearer to the area this year – people who can drive here in just a few hours.” Her guess would fit that U.S. Travel Association survey.
Mayor Cooper said, “We’re very fortunate about what’s happening on the Crystal Coast as opposed to what’s happening statewide. I hate it for other restaurants in other parts of the state, and across the country, because I know their struggle and my heart goes out to them.”
Shelter In (a Sandy) Place and Dig Out the Business Tips
Both Cooper and Nicholson voice cautious optimism for the fall. They see a seemingly odd benefit to social distancing: a busier-than-usual autumn for their area. “Right now, we may be a bit below normal for September and October occupancy, but we suspect that may change after more schools announce their opening plans,” Nicholson said.
As NCND previously reported, Wake County schools, for example, will have only online classes until at least Sept. 8. Statewide elementary schools will blend remote and in-person instruction for Fall 2020, with the school-by-school option for remote only.
“We are preparing for a better fall than normal,” Nicholson said. “We hope that families who don’t have to go to school right away can see that they can do their home schooling and online schooling from Emerald Isle, and still have time to go down to the beach.”
Cooper concurred. “I think generally there are as many people on the Crystal Coast now as there have been in other summers, and I agree with the rental agencies that it will last into the fall.”
So you might still visit the Crystal Coast with your remaining summer, as much for its businesses as its beaches.
From the examples of Cooper, Nicholson and other owners, distill the tall, cool drink of savvy practice: don’t doubt NC consumers. They’ve found ways to travel to Atlantic Beach and Emerald Isle, despite the risks of COVID-19.
Also make sure to keep a weather-eye on the future. Cooper and Nicholson are already watching the fall and weighing its profitability. They’ve kept tabs on North Carolina schooling plans, since those outcomes will impact their businesses. Our Pivot Series is full of other shops that have pivoted to survive COVID-19. Like them, Crystal Coast Businesses might have some buried nuggets to help you pull off the same feat.