Roughly two hours west of Denver, Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Tabernash, Colo., offers all the typical amenities of your average dude ranch: archery, horseback riding, even a zipline.
But that’s not what Devil’s Thumb is advertising. Instead, in the age of Covid-19, it’s promoting the quality of its mountain air.
“Mind, body, spirit and morale will be restored knowing precautionary measures and protocols are in place to ensure your guests’ stay is healthy, relaxing and enjoyable,” Devil’s Thumb wrote in a letter to travel agents, urging them to book clients an escape in the “secluded and pristine Colorado mountain wilderness,” promising “clean, crisp, pine-infused air.”
As the weather gets warmer and the country undergoes the reopening process, resorts and lodges in the American South and in more rural destinations are beginning to ease their restrictions and prepare to welcome back visitors, banking that strong brand identity and an emphasis on cleanliness will allay health concerns.
This is all happening despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice that Americans only travel if it’s essential. Meanwhile, airlines have seen an ever-so-slight rise in summer bookings, while Carnival Corporation wants to be back in the water by August.
Devil’s Thumb isn’t alone. On May 13, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville resorts announced that it had begun to take steps to “welcome guests back to paradise.” The Key West, Fla., location is slated to open June 1, and its hotel in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., opens today. Hotels.com is doubling reward points for guests booking a stay between June 1 and Aug. 31.
What summer travel will look like
Stateside destinations will likely get a boost this summer. Travel surveys conducted by the industry show that people who are comfortable traveling will do so by car, and are far more likely to visit parks and beaches that are regionally close to their homes. Those same surveys also indicate an unwillingness to board an international flight or a cruise ship.
“Destination markets you can drive to are the hottest—those will come back the quickest. Any beachfront markets, we think there is pent-up demand,” said Stan Kennedy, chief operating officer for Remington Hotels, which manages more than 87 properties that include several beachside hotels.
When beaches in Florida reopened a few weeks ago, “we saw an almost instantaneous demand right away on the weekends, and that’s continued to grow every week,” he added.
In addition to staying close to home, travelers will also be looking for opportunities that allow for a more isolated vacation and intimate settings. That means limiting capacity. Over Memorial Day weekend, Devil’s Thumb Ranch officially opened for the season with a reduced capacity of roughly 30%. (So far, Grand County, where Devil’s Thumb is located, has only seen five confirmed cases of Covid-19, with roughly 23,000 cases in Colorado overall.)
The property was expecting to receive roughly 60 guests for the holiday weekend, a much smaller number than in years past. Over Memorial Day weekend in 2019, there were between 240 and 300 guests. At least half of Devil’s Thumb’s business last year came from group outings, such as corporate events or large weddings. That will no longer be an option this summer with capacity limits.
The socially distant approach will impact all aspects of the resort’s operations. Employees will wear face masks. Guests will need reservations for all onsite activities, like horseback riding, which will be conducted with social distancing in mind. The spa is closed. The resort’s restaurant is only open for takeout. The resort is hoping to hit 30% to 40% capacity over the summer.
“We’ve structured everything so that when you show up with your family, you can do activities on a private basis, you can stay out of everyone’s way. We’re not promoting congregation,” said Brian Ripley, chief revenue officer of Devil’s Thumb, noting that he was a “little trepidatious” about reopening but felt confident in the resort’s offerings for the current climate.
“I’m fond of the phrase ‘social distance naturally,'” Ripley said. “It’s not going to be perfect starting out, but we do have enough to offer. It’s the kind of trip I would take my family on.”
In an effort to capitalize on a chaotic travel environment, Ripley and his team have contacted travel agents who focus on the cruise industry, urging them to send those guests to the ranch instead.
“Smaller properties have a competitive advantage right now. ‘An escape’ is going to be an advantage,” he said.
The power of brands during a pandemic
Recognized brands will also likely get a boost in the return to travel. Familiar names like Hilton or Marriott carry a lot of weight, especially as the travel industry—and everyone else—enters the unknown of a reopened economy in the face of a pandemic.
“People have gotten spoiled by alternative accommodations and home-sharing,” said Noah Brodsky, chief brand officer of Wyndham Destinations, the timeshare arm of Wyndham’s hospitality brand. “They know they love the extra space, but what none of those services provide is the branded trust that you’re going to get with Wyndham, Hilton, Marriott or Disney. There’s a big brand behind those cleaning policies.”
Wyndham Destinations reopened today, starting in its locations in Florida and South Carolina where shutdown restrictions have already eased. Before a guest even reaches their destination, they receive an email outlining options for arrival, whether they want to do it curbside or a regular lobby check-in. As a default, housekeeping won’t be daily, unless a guest calls and asks for turndown service.
The company is expecting to be busy this summer. More than 70% of its destinations are drive-to, such as resorts in Branson, Mo., or Wisconsin Dells. According to Wyndham Destinations’ own internal year-over-year data, its timeshare owners are four times more likely to search a destination in a “less-urban environment” and twice as likely to research a vacation in Florida this year than in 2019.
“We’re seeing a lot of demand from people who just want to get out of their homes,” Brodsky said. “[At our timeshare], you can be self-quarantined if you want to.”
Cleaning will be an operational hurdle
Even though the revenue brought in from reopening can be a lifeline for hospitality brands, essential new cleaning initiatives mandated at the corporate level will be costly in both labor and new technology.
When Marriott announced its new cleanliness standard, it included “electrostatic spraying technology” with the highest classification of disinfectants. Those products are expensive, and it’ll be at least until mid-June before they’re available nationwide in every hotel.
Typically, Kennedy said, hotels’ public areas are cleaned anywhere between every three and eight hours. “Now we’re using an hourly checklist,” he said. “Historically, we’ve done the cleaning when the guests aren’t there; we try to keep it out of sight. Now it’s more important than ever. It requires more time.”
And as the leisure market comes back, Brodsky is planning to invest heavily in advertising after cutting the brand’s on-air advertising budget during the first outbreak of Covid-19. It ran a 30-second spot during the PGA tour’s TaylorMade Driving Relief Match on NBC last week that highlighted the brand, its beaches and golf courses, as opposed to telling travelers to book by a certain date.
“We feel that this is the right time to slowly, smartly get back into the market,” said Brodsky. “We’re not saying, ‘Come July 4’ because we’re just not sure, but a one-year, open travel package seems like the right message now.”