For most summer businesses, the one thing owners say they can be certain of is uncertainty.
For most summer businesses, the one thing owners say they can be certain of is uncertainty. AFP / Vincenzo PINTO

Restaurants. Amusement parks. Summer camps. Tourist shops. With Memorial Day on the horizon, now's the time many small companies that depend on summer business have been anticipating--and dreading--since COVID-19 lock-downs went into effect earlier this year. That's because most enterprises allowed to open by state law must grapple with just how to get their places COVID-ready--or if customers will be willing to venture back no matter what precautions they take.

The upshot: While the situation facing businesses differs from state to state, pretty much everyone is dealing with a complex set of considerations about how best to open, or whether to do so at all.

Safety and Cleaning

Opening up for business and attracting customers are two separate matters. The latter depends on making sure customers feel safe. And that requires adopting aggressive safety and cleaning measures.

Take Adventures on the Gorge in Lansing, WV, which offers white water rafting, ziplines, dining and other activities. Set to open on Friday, almost two months later than usual, CEO Roger Wilson worked with the governor's office and the state tourist department to devise an exhaustive series of measures. For example, the number of passengers rafts generally fit has been reduced from eight to six, all of whom must be part of the same family or group. Buses taking rafters to the water will carry just 18 passengers, compared to the 55 to 73 people allowed on before. "America has to get comfortable with visiting," Wilson says.

Wilson also is prominently publicizing those efforts, recently posting a 42-minute video on the company's web site explaining its re-opening procedures. "People want to know what the protocols are before they get there. Is staff wearing masks? Are they changing gloves after every client interaction? Is there touchless check in?" says Nancy Medoff, who runs AthenaWise Strategic Solutions, a hospitality sales and marketing consulting firm. "You need more than a general statement."

Making Cost Calculations

Assuring customers they'll be safe is one thing. Guaranteeing that they won't get sick is another. "We have to be honest with our families. There's only so much we can control," says Andy Pritikin, owner of Liberty Lake, a day camp in Bordentown, NJ, who's doing everything from doubling the camp's number of nurses to four and assigning just 10 campers to a group, about half the usual number.

All these safety precautions aren't cheap. "Efficiency is being thrown out the window now," says Wilson. For his part, Pritikin says the costs are likely to involve more than new cleaning protocols. He considers his camp to provide an essential service to parents desperate for childcare and children eager for outdoor activities after being cooped up for months. What's more, because many cash-strapped municipalities have cancelled low-cost local summer programs, according to Pritikin, he's looking for ways to offer discounted rates to families in need. As for the extra expense: "I'm just going to suck it up," he says.

For most businesses, the decision to open up depends partly on state and Centers for Disease Control requirements and guidelines. Some states, for example, recommend that certain restaurants allow no more than 50% of maximum occupancy inside the premises. "If you can only open up to the public at 30% or 50% capacity, is it worth it?" says Jason Pourakis, a partner with Mazars USA, a New York City-based accounting and tax consulting firm.

Seeking A New Audience

With international travel at a standstill, companies used to seeing patrons from all over are dialing down on their marketing to far-flung customers, focusing on their domestic market. Connor Griffiths, owner of Lifty Life, vacation rental management company in British Columbia, expects an increase in demand from residents of big cities in Canada. "That's largely because they don't have the option of flying to Mexico or Europe," he says. For that reason, he's focusing his marketing on Facebook groups and Canadian destination marketing firms.

In places where demand is likely to be low, small businesses are taking more aggressive steps--especially those heavily dependent on tourism. With cruise ships and flights cancelled, for example, businesses in Alaska aren't expecting a significant uptick in sales. That's particularly difficult for stores like Crow Creek Design, a small Palmer, Alaska shop selling original woodworking pieces by Jess Crow, the company's owner. Most of her business comes from sales of such small, easily transportable items as cutting boards and bowls to tourists looking for "made in Alaska" mementos.

After she had to cancel travel plans for a vacation in Mexico earlier this year, Crow started thinking of ways to bring a little taste of Mexico to her Alaskan home. With that, she realized she could try to do the same for tourists forced to end travel plans to Alaska. Now, she's targeting Facebook groups for Alaskan travelers and online sites like Trip Advisor and Travelocity, as well as using key search words. Plus, she's investigating how to boost her online sales to tourists who had to cancel travel plans, but crave an authentic Alaskan experience. "If tourists aren't coming to me, I need to shop my products to them," she says.

Embracing Uncertainty

In terms of how, and even if, to reopen, it comes down to a matter of cash flow--whether a business can make enough revenues to cover rent, utilities and other fixed costs and still keep operating. Of course, as Pourakis notes, there's an odd upside to reduced demand: lower expenses, as well as the opportunity to renegotiate contracts.

He points to a laundry company in a rural area that usually does a lot of summertime business from restaurants and hotels. With demand down, he says, the owners figured the enterprise not only needed far fewer trucks, but also would have to make repairs less frequently. So they renegotiated their leasing agreements and their truck insurance policy.

For most summer businesses, however, the one thing owners say they can be certain of is uncertainty. This pace of this unprecedented pandemic remains unpredictable, causing consumers to keep plans fluid and make impromptu decisions. Smart companies will have to be ready to turn on a dime, too. "This is going to be a very last-minute summer," says Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions in Canon City, Col.