Hospitality businesses sound optimistic about summer season

March 15, 2021

LACONIA — Just over a year ago Tom Boucher, owner of T-Bones and Cactus Jack's, called a member of his senior management team, after noticing that sales at the restaurants had dropped 20 percent.

“I think people are taking this COVID thing seriously,” he told his colleague. “We’ve got to get a meeting of our top management to discuss this and plan. What if we have to close?”

“They wouldn’t shut us down,” his colleague responded incredulously.

“We were shut down at midnight one year ago today,” Boucher said.

He told that story during a teleconference meeting Monday hosted by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen to discuss the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the state’s hospitality industry as well as to discuss the help that restaurants, lodging establishments, and other tourism-related businesses can expect to receive through the $1.9m trillion relief package that became law last week.

After struggling through last year Boucher and the other roundtable participants say business is starting to rebound and that the coming summer tourist season will be strong.

“Hopefully things will start getting back to normal after Memorial Day,” said Boucher, whose Great New Hampshire Restaurants operates stores in Laconia as well as eight other communities.

The outlook for the Lakes Region as a whole is very strong, Amy Landers, executive director of the Lakes Region Tourism Association said. Pre-bookings for vacation rentals, hotel rooms, and boat rentals are up.

“If you’re planning to come to the Lakes Region you better start making plans now,” she said.

The mammoth bill, which cleared Congress last week and was immediately signed by President Joe Biden, contains money for direct checks, jobless benefits, state and local aid, and more.

“It provides significant additional help for the hospitality industry, live performance venues, and restaurants which have been hit by this pandemic,” Shaheen said.

One of the elements of the relief bill is the Restaurant Revitalization Fund which provides $28.6 billion for restaurants, food trucks and bars. Like the Paycheck Protection Program, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund is a lifeline for businesses devastated by the pandemic.

Through the fund eligible businesses can receive a tax-free federal grant equal to the amount of its pandemic-related revenue loss, which is calculated by subtracting 2020 gross receipts from 2019 gross receipts. Restaurants which were open for only part of 2019 or were not in operation until last year can also apply under a different set of calculations.

But that bailout may not be enough if there are not enough workers.

Landers said the biggest worry for many Lakes Region hospitality businesses is the ability to find sufficient help. She said it is imperative that restaurants, resorts and tourist attractions be able to hire foreign workers through visa programs which were available up until last year when the Trump administration abruptly shut the programs down.

“I’m afraid that we could have some businesses shutting down after a few weeks because they don’t have enough help,” Landers said.

Trying to recruit help from people who live outside the area is really not an option because of the lack of housing that these people could realistically afford, she said.

“If we can attract employees, there’s no housing,” she said.

Seasonal businesses face another challenge as they gear up for the summer season.

“When you go from five employees to 100 you have to make sure the new employees don’t bring COVID with them,” she said, noting that kind of exposure to the virus would require the level of quarantining that might force a business to shut down for two weeks.

Shaheen said the Biden administration has a “more rational” policy toward visa workers and that it is re-evaluating the practices of the Trump administration. But she offered no insight as to what the administration will ultimately decide.

Most participants, including Boucher, said that restaurants will be returning to outside dining on the same scale as last year.

Boucher said the outdoor option was very popular with customers.

Ben VanCamp who is with the Chamber Collaborative of Greater Portsmouth said outdoor dining would be up and running again in Portsmouth in two weeks.

“Consumer spending is strong,” he said. “As people get vaccinated they are more confident about going out.”

By:  MIchael Mortensen
Source: Laconia Daily Sun