Hospitality industry upbeat after Irene

ADDISON COUNTY AND BRANDON — Inn and hotel operators in Addison County and Brandon are concerned that Vermont’s recent portrayal as a storm-ravaged state might be discouraging some prospective tourists. But they remain buoyed last week by rebuilding efforts and are confident that bookings will be strong for the critical fall foliage season.
According to the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, visitors make 13.4 million trips to Vermont each year and visitor spending adds an estimated $1.57 billion to the state’s economy — including about $332 million during foliage season alone.
Now that Brandon’s downtown is cleaned up and Route 7 through town has re-opened following flooding from Tropical Storm Irene on Aug. 28, local business owners want to get the word out while still being mindful of those towns hit much harder by flooding.
Doug Sawyer, owner of the Lilac Inn in Brandon, is pushing hard to change the perception that visitors should stay away.
“We want to let people know that we’re open,” Sawyer said. “We don’t want to jump on people’s bones, but we are open. The national news makes it look like there’s no Vermont left, and that’s just not the case.”
Estimates indicate that between 80,000 and 150,000 room nights have been canceled since the flood within 30 minutes of Brandon, according to Brandon selectboard Chair Richard Baker, who also chairs the Rutland Regional Transportation Council.
“The leaves are still going to change, and Brandon is open for business,” Baker said.
Sawyer’s market is national and global, so he said he’s using the travel website Trip Advisor to highlight Brandon.
He said Brandon shows a higher number of searches on Trip Advisor than other towns like Middlebury, and gives tourists the chance to post reviews of their visit.
“Someone that stayed with us ate at Café Provence four nights in a row and couldn’t say enough about her visit in her review,” Sawyer said. “When we get people here, they spend money downtown.”
And the effort is statewide. Vermont Tourism and Marketing Commissioner Megan Smith has taken to social media to send that message outside the state, using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, urging visitors to come to Vermont and assuring them that large areas of the state were unaffected by flooding.
“We are thinking about the businesses in distress, but at the same time we realize we need to keep the rest of our tourism industry healthy,” Smith said last week. “We are open for business and the whole state needs that business now, more than ever.”
The decision by the Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF) to close the entire 400,000-acre forest in the wake of the Aug. 28 flood was met with criticism by some local business owners given the timing ahead of the busy Labor Day Weekend. While some trails have been washed out, Sawyer contends that there has been little if any damage in the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area, which comprises 20,000 acres along the western ridge of the Green Mountains from Goshen to East Middlebury. Moosalamoo is a major hiking destination for tourists to Addison County and the Brandon area.
“It was ridiculous,” the Lilac Inn’s Sawyer said of the national forest closure. “Talk about heavy handed. It wasn’t necessary. So much of it was accessible. I know they’re trying to do the right thing, and I’m just a frustrated innkeeper.”
U.S. Forest Service employees have been assessing the forest-owned roads within the GMNF, as well as culverts, bridges and trails. They have not provided a timeline for when the forest would be re-opened, but issued a press release stating that GMNF staff members are prioritizing the roads to be repaired.
“Their goal is to open as many roads as possible before fall foliage season,” the statement read. “Initial assessments of the hiking trails indicate that some tree damage has occurred, but washouts along the trails are the biggest concern. The GMNF has approximately 900 miles of hiking trails and will continue to complete assessments and clear brush. Priority will be given to the Appalachian Trail, the Long Trail and other popular trails.”
Jenny Nixon-Carter of Brandon is the executive director of the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area. She said she understands the frustration of business owners, but that an extraordinary event like Tropical Storm Irene is a game-changer for many agencies.
“I think public safety is the number-one concern of the U.S. Forest Service,” she said. “Some association members and business owners are pretty upset by the closure, but we’re working with the forest service to expedite the opening. I think they’re in really uncharted waters having to assess such a large area.”
Nixon-Carter said she has heard that the forest service would try to reopen the forest soon, and that it will be a wave opening, where officials will assess an area, deem it safe and re-open one portion at a time.
“We’re taking a patient approach and doing whatever we can to help,” she said. “Our initial assessment of Moosalamoo is that it’s in pretty good shape.”
Janet Mondlak, executive director of the Brandon Area Chamber of Commerce, said she is trying to find the money for an aggressive marketing campaign to bring people to Brandon post-flood.
“We want to do guerrilla marketing to let people know we’re open,” she said. “You can get here from there and everything is open.”
The chamber is putting together a color co-op advertisement in the Vermont Vacation Guide 2012, the magazine used by state of Vermont and the state chamber of commerce.
Several Addison County inn and hotel operators were pleased to report on Thursday that flooding from Tropical Storm Irene has not thrown a major monkey wrench into late summer and fall reservation bookings. Travelers have in some cases called to make sure hotels and inns are open and that they can still be accessed.
“The message we’re getting out is, ‘It’s business as usual here,’” said Addison County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Andy Mayer. “If you have plans or are making plans, please come.”
Mayer and representatives of several Addison County lodging establishments gathered in the aftermath of Irene to discuss Irene’s fallout and the potential impact it could have on short-term bookings as well as the all-important fall foliage season.
The chamber, in concert with the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, have been issuing regular press releases and Web reports that while it might take a little longer to get around some areas, the Green Mountain State is ready for tourists.
Robin Vaughan, sales manager for the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel in Middlebury, has fielded several phone calls from prospective customers in the aftermath of Irene.
“We have been able to reassure people they can get here,” said Vaughan, who emphasized to callers that main thoroughfares such as Interstate 89 and Route 7 are open.
She acknowledged the hotel had some cancellations on the day of the storm, but added those vacancies were quickly filled by people who found themselves stranded in the area. The hotel offered some of its rooms at reduced prices to relief workers.
At this point, Vaughan said the Marriott’s 89 rooms are fully booked on weekends through late October, with some weekdays available.
“We are ahead of last year’s numbers so far and are feeling pretty good about it,” Vaughan said.
Pennie Beach of the Basin Harbor Club and Resort in Ferrisburgh also reported “reservations are really strong for the fall.”
She said some folks called soon after the flood to make sure they could get to the Basin Harbor Club. Anticipating that question, staff sent out an e-mail to booked guests emphasizing the club is open and accessible, and explaining how to get there.
A few people took the club up on an offer for complimentary stays for those whose accommodations were canceled at other Vermont inns, resorts and hotels that were either closed or inaccessible in the aftermath of Irene. The Basin Harbor Club and Resort has 147 rooms on its lakeshore property..
Bruce Grove, innkeeper at the 11-room Inn on the Green in downtown Middlebury, said a few people cancelled their reservations during the storm. But business is rebounding nicely these days, he said.
“People are starting to recognize that most of Vermont is open for business,” Grove said. “I am very optimistic we will have a strong foliage season.”
Around six prospective guests of the Crystal Palace Bed and Breakfast in Bristol cancelled their reservations during the week following Irene, according to owner Stacie Ayote.  Like others in the local lodging industry, she chalked it up to people concerned about being able to travel within Vermont.
“People were panicking,” Ayote said. But time — and assurances of restored routes — have restored customers’ confidence, she said. Ayote anticipates more reservations for fall foliage season during the next few weeks, as the current economy is prompting more travelers to wait longer before booking rooms.
“Things are looking pretty good,” she said.
The Brandon chamber’s Mondlak said it will be good for local morale to have tourists back in town.
“Tourism is really important and now more than ever,” she said. “We’ve lost a few businesses and we’re trying to get up and running again. Fall is going to be beautiful, and luckily, we did not have the incredible damage that other towns did. We’re alive and well in Brandon.”

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