Lakes area campgrounds come roaring back after Memorial Day losses
The loss of a the recreation-oriented holiday and COVID-19 closures have presented a difficult stretch and there's still uncertainty regarding the future, but campgrounds across the lakes area are seeing booming business all the same.
In cabin country, it’s feast or famine even during the best of times.
Then 2020 rolls around and the Brainerd lakes area — whose economy is largely predicated on nature tourism, campgrounds, resorts and associated businesses — finds itself in a period of great famine during some of the most vital months of the year. In talks with the Dispatch, resort owners and campground proprietors pointed to the summer months as a make or break season for the industry, with Memorial Day weekend, Fourth of July, and Labor Day weekend forming a trifecta of key dates that keep businesses afloat.
Enter COVID-19 into the mix.
First there were the travel bans, then widespread business closures. Social distancing and sanitization measures were implemented and enforced. Overnight camping was banned for the month of May. And then campgrounds were closed for Memorial Day. Then, in the course of a few short days, it seemed much of society came to a grinding halt.
Things were bleak.
“We lost the Memorial Day holliday, which is a third of our income for the year,” said Phil Trusty, proprietor of Crow Wing Lake Campground south of Brainerd, which had to switch to a more seasonal renter model that decreased the number of daily rental sites.
While campsites are filling up, it’s difficult to say if the campground will be able to recuperate its losses even if campers continue to show up in a steady, healthy stream of business, added Phil’s wife and co-owner Coni. That’s how vital Memorial Day is.
“As we approached the summer season back in May and early June, there was a lot of pessimism. We lost Memorial Day weekend. At that time restaurants closed. We weren't sure about tourism coming back,” said Matt Kilian, president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce. “It's really come back with a force. And as families leave the metropolitan areas they feel safe in the great outdoors and all of the lakes and the nature that we have up in the Brainerd lakes area. A lot of the small resorts and campgrounds have benefited greatly from that.”
That’s something of a microcosm for an industrywide trend resorts and campgrounds are experiencing in this unusual tourism season. This year, campgrounds and resorts started deep in the hole when Memorial Day weekend was effectively canceled and shut down across the state. Since then, it’s been a steap, steady rise as campgrounds claw their way back into profitability. Kilian noted many campgrounds and resorts are experiencing a better July and August this year than record-setting summer months last year.
That seems to be the case for Upper Cullen Resort & Campground up by Pequot Lakes, where general manager Matt Galles said an enormous surge of business has the campground booked for the rest of the 2020 summer season and halfway into the 2021 year.
“It’s the busiest summer we’ve ever had,” Galles said. “When COVID hit we had two to three dozen reservations canceled, which is very significant. Now, we had no openings this summer, it's remarkable. … So, 90% of the new people have already booked for next year.”
Jane Geike, a co-owner of Fritz’s Resort Campground squeezed between Lower Cullen Lake and Lake Edna near Nisswa, said it was tough sledding to start the 2020 season, with the loss of Memorial Day and overnight camping in May cutting deep into Fritz’s bottom line. Coupled with this loss of revenue were increased costs for safety measures and diligent sanitization, she said.
But, in summation, Geike said, things are looking up now that business has settled back into a healthy groove.
“We actually have been, for the week, filled up so it's been a busy season,” Geike said. “We're finally able to open. It's been a busy season, a lot of changes and a lot of expense because of the regulations you have to follow for cleaning and the cabins. It takes a lot longer to clean because of the regulations, but overall it's been a good summer.”
“But, no, you can’t fully recover from a loss like that (Memorial Day),” added Geike, who advised people to be patient and kind as everyone weathers this upheaval together.
Kilian said there’s other good indicators that this run of good fortune may last a little longer than many might expect. Business owners have observed that people are taking longer stays in the lakes area when they’re able to work from home, Kilian said, and there are plenty of signs that snowbirds or Twin Cities travelers may hunker down in the less densely populated northern parts of the state to wait out COVID — two developments, he said, which means revenue trends could flatten out and sustain themselves longer into the colder months than a typical year.
Still, it’s not wise to get ahead of yourself, especially in a year like 2020, Kilian said. While campgrounds and resorts are filling up with people, there’s still a significant dearth in commercial and business-oriented traffic, said Kilian, who noted that many resorts are reporting a roughly 40% reduction in revenue with the loss of business meetings, corporate retreats and conferences that would, typically, be hosted at these places.
This topsy-turvy year of 2020 isn’t over yet, he said, and there’s still a lot of uncertainty and troubling questions going forward.
“We’re cautiously optimistic, but we’re not out of the woods yet,” Kilian said. “It remains to be seen as we move through the coming months. Maybe the second phase of the COVID-19 pandemic will come. Is there going to be enough funds in the Paycheck Protection Program, is that going to be enough, or all these other relief programs going to be enough so that we can make it now to the summer tourism season of 2021?”
Upper Cullen Campground & Resort on Upper Cullen Lake.
Fritz’s Resort Campground on Lake Edna.
Crow Wing Lake Campground on Crow Wing Lake.
GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .
Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the manager of Upper Cullen Campground & Resort as Matt Gallef. The manager's name is, in fact, Matt Galles. The Dispatch regrets this error.