With hospitality businesses struggling and even closing, it’s tough to try and celebrate a travel and tourism industry that’s hurting. This is especially true when our friends and neighbors are laid off, working under reduced hours or concerned for their health, even if they aren’t in hospitality.
That May 3-8 is National Travel and Tourism Week gives us an opportunity to appreciate all that our partners in hospitality do for us – even, or maybe especially, in tough times – and to remind ourselves how lucky we are to live in a place that offers so many wonderful trails and attractions, restaurants, campgrounds and hotels, retailers and more.
What will this summer be like?
It’s a question Minnesotans from cities like Worthington to Grand Marais and Stillwater to Moorhead are asking. We’ve waited many long months for sunshine and open water, for camping, getaways, trips to our favorite attractions, and the summer recreation that for many of us is the reason we live here. Will we actually be able to enjoy summer? Will we want to?
Today more than three-quarters of Americans surveyed have changed their travel plans, according to research from MMGY Global, Longwoods International and Destination Analysis. About 70 percent say they can’t wait to travel again, while 51 percent are planning their travel in September, October or November.
So what does it mean for summer travel when 35 percent of overnight guest spending, or about $23 million, occurs on the Mesabi Iron Range?
“We want to be realistic about the potential loss of revenue this summer and beyond,” said Tony Jeffries, treasurer of the Iron Range Tourism Bureau (IRTB), the destination marketing organization serving the Mesabi Iron Range. “We are reducing spending while at the same time
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continuing to share information about all the things there are to see and do in our region.”
The IRTB is estimating a reduction in lodging taxes of 70, 50 and 40 percent for the months of June, July and August, respectively. Attractions and lodging properties are bracing for reduced revenue from visitors, and some are getting creative about how to raise money in other ways. But they’re also putting a positive spin on things.
Hull Rust Mine View
Melissa Versich, executive director of the Hibbing Tourist Center Seniors and coordinator of the volunteers that staff Hull Rust Mine View, is confident that Hibbing’s top tourist attraction will be able to accommodate visitors this summer.
“We certainly have plenty of space outside on the grounds,” she said. “We may need to limit the amount of people we allow inside the gift shop and information area since it's very small, but we will be ready to do what we need to do to welcome visitors. We encourage people to wear masks, gloves, whatever they feel they need to be safe."
Whether Mine View comes online on its opening date, set for May 20, depends on the City of Hibbing reopening city parks in accordance with state guidelines. A delayed opening could impact the Tourist Center’s bottom line, since a significant portion of funding for year-round operations is generated by donations and gift store purchases at Mine View. In 2019, more than 25,000 visitors from all 50 states and more than 20 countries signed the guest book at the historic mine overlook.
While much about summer travel remains unknown, Versich remains optimistic. "The Iron Range and Hibbing have so much to offer during our beautiful summers,” she said. “We are thrilled to welcome tourists and locals back up the Hull Rust Mine View just as soon as we can.”
Minnesota Museum of Mining
While COVID-19 has forced local leaders to hit the "pause" button for visitors to the Minnesota Museum of Mining in Chisholm, the team there is using this opportunity to perform maintenance that is most safely completed with the gates closed, according to Carol Borich, Museum Board Treasurer and active volunteer. “Several exhibits need updating, painting, and cleaning, and the granite castle needs a new ‘drawbridge,’” Borich said. “These tasks have been moved up on the schedule to be completed while the museum is still closed to visitors.”
Borich expects that planned large group events and visits from school groups will be deferred, but she believes being a mostly outdoor attraction has its advantages. “Because it's impractical to disinfect our 13 acres of mining equipment, our ‘hands-on’ emphasis may be modified for a time,” she said. “Fortunately, the very fact that the museum is spread over 13 acres allows visitors easy social distancing.”
Like Borich, Ardy Nurmi-Wilberg sees the silver lining in being an outdoor attraction. Nurmi-Wilberg is executive director of Club Mesabi, the “friends” group and marketing arm of the Mesabi Trail.
Stretching 135 miles between Grand Rapids and Ely, the Mesabi Trail is perfect for social distancing, Nurmi-Wilberg said. “There’s lots of room, and exercise is an excellent stress reliever. I encourage people to grab their bike or their favorite walking and running shoes and head out on the Mesabi Trail.”
The trail has not been completely unaffected by COVID-19, however.
Earlier this year the Great River Energy Mesabi Trail Bike Tour planners cancelled the annual event, which is held the first Saturday in August for around 800 participants. “It was a very difficult decision,” Nurmi-Wilberg said. “But the date for 2021 has already been set, and a number of our sponsors have already committed. The Great River Energy Mesabi Trail Tour will ride again in 2021.”
The Quarry golf course at Giants Ridge opened May 1, with special protocols in place for social distancing and sanitizing. “To go” food and beverage services are available for guests, per Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order. But local golfers might just benefit from the otherwise unfortunate situation. Giants Ridge is offering a special green fee rate, for local residents only.
“While we continue to monitor and follow the state’s self-distancing guidelines, we are fortunate to be able to continue to offer somewhat limited premier recreation opportunities for guests, at the current time,” said Jaimie Niska, Marketing Director at Giants Ridge. “The fresh, clean northern Minnesota air affords recreation enthusiasts the ability to self-distance, yet still be able to actively enjoy the activities they know and love.”
Onsite lodging at The Lodge and The Villas, and the nearby Country Inn of Hoyt Lakes was temporarily closed due to COVID-19. All have reopened or will reopen by May 4. Vacation home rentals, and Green Gate Guest Houses at Giants Ridge remained open throughout April.
While some area lodging properties closed to guests during April most kept their doors open and continued to accommodate travelers, but certainly not at typical occupancy levels.
Jim Makowsky is the general manager of AmericInn by Wyndham in Virginia and the Eveleth Super 8 motel. He is optimistic that cabin fever and a need by the public to enjoy the kind of summer recreation offered here will bring visitors back to the region.
“I still feel like we will have a good summer,” he said.
Makowsky also noted that when it comes to lodging, the area has something else going for it: construction.
“Currently, we are getting a lot of calls for construction workers,” he said. “With the new Miner’s Memorial Complex in Virginia and several school projects, there is a lot happening on the Range.”
For those traveling now and in the immediate future, the guest experience is a bit different.
“We have cut back on some amenities: no pool, hot tub, no sauna and no bar. Breakfast is bagged up to go, which our guests really appreciate,” Makowsky said. “We still are doing some of the things that keep our customers happy; we do complimentary soup and chili every night. Housekeeping is now limited, as we are trying to keep the direct guest contact to a minimum, but at the same time do what we can for them. Our guests fully understand and are supportive; most of them are just happy to have a safe, clean place to stay.”
The Lyric Center for the Arts
What strikes Mary McReynolds, executive director of the Lyric Center for the Arts in Virginia, about the new, COVID-created reality, is the inability to connect with others.
“What comes to mind is how quiet it is,” she said about the Center, which houses a performance space and gallery. “No kids rehearsing. No artists sitting around the table solving the world’s problems while they paint.”
She also sees a deeper problem. “It’s difficult for all of us, including nonprofits, to maintain operations. We rely on people coming in the doors as a way of building relationships with them that keep an income stream going.”
Many nonprofits, including area museums, have taken to social media to keep people engaged with their behind-closed-doors activities. But it’s hard to make money when the product you’re selling is an experience, and that experience is closed to the public.
The Lyric Center, like Minnesota Discovery Center and Hull Rust Mine View, launched online fundraising efforts to keep cash flowing in. All have been successful, raising several thousand dollars each at a time when every penny counts.
“It’s gratifying to know that people, many of whom might be facing financial hardships of their own, continue to support the arts and our regional attractions,” McReynolds said. “We need those donations now more than ever.”