The Working Waterfront

‘Revenge travel’ driving Bar Harbor reservations

Summer season looks promising as travelers prefer outdoors

Laurie Schreiber
Posted 2021-06-02
Last Modified 2021-06-02

The tourist season is still gearing up, but by early May, owners of hotels, inns, and campgrounds were seeing strong reservations and looking forward to a busy year.

Many owners and operators said the numbers so far were better than 2019, which was already a strong year. They attributed the numbers to pent-up demand and a perception of Maine as a safe place to be with plenty of outdoor space.

Most of Witham Family Hotels’ nine lodgings in Bar Harbor and three in Ellsworth exceeded or matched the 2019 pace to date, said CEO David Witham.

“At this point in time, we have no reason to believe bookings will not continue to be solid well into the fall season,” he said. “But still being in a pandemic, we will remain cautiously optimistic, especially with the success the country has had with vaccination roll-out.”

“We’re booked through mid-September at this point.”

—Karen Roper of Acadia Yurts

Witham said this travel season has been termed in the industry “revenge travel.”

“The pace of reservations simply reflects the built-up demand from the pandemic,” he said.

Another factor supporting the pace, he said, is likely that folks who feel more comfortable traveling are choosing outdoor destinations within driving distance from their homes over urban destinations or others that require plane travel.

“The hotel business is seeing an uptick of return tourism,” said Eben Salvatore, Mount Desert Island operations chief for Ocean Properties, which owns Bar Harbor Whale Watch and four hotels in town. “We’re excited to see the amount of demand that’s out there.”

By May, Ocean Properties’ reservations were 15 percent above the same period in 2019, he said.

“That’s a really good sign,” Salvatore said.

A notable demographic includes out-of-staters who encountered Maine’s 2020 quarantine restrictions, decided to go elsewhere, but are now returning, he added.

The first half of 2020 devastated the industry. But things changed when restrictions lifted, said Acadia Hotel and Ivy Manor Inn co-owner Peter Hastings.

“There was no making up for May, June, and the first three weeks of July,” Hastings said. “But from the last week of July through October was very strong. Not 2019 levels, but much better than anyone anticipated.”

For 2021, reservations were setting a record pace, although there was no telling yet whether that was an early surge or a trend for the rest of the year, Hastings said.

By early May, Acadia Cottage Rentals had filled almost all of its open weeks for its approximately 100 vacation rental units, said co-owner Tom Simons.

“I think there was a lot of pent-up demand from folks who didn’t travel last year,” he said.

People are eager to camp out, too. On Bar Harbor’s outskirts, Hadley’s Point Campground, with 170 campsites and 16 cabins, was seeing more reservations than 2019, said co-owner Allison Kelley.

The property’s new online reservations system was likely helping to push the surge, Kelley said. But also, many who canceled last year were looking to rebook this season.

On the island’s “Quiet Side,” Acadia Yurts in Southwest Harbor was seeing “super strong” reservations for its seven yurts and two tiny houses, said co-owner Karen Roper.

“We’re booked through mid-September at this point,” Roper said. “They also came in a lot more quickly. We were full a lot earlier than usual.”

In 2020, the property was completely full after restrictions lifted. That had never happened before. Guests were likely attracted to the units’ self-sufficiency and the property’s self-check-in system, she explained.

The property’s wellness center—with infrared sauna, floatation room, and licensed massage therapy—also saw extensive use with various restrictions in place.

“I think lots of people want to reduce stress and are interested in taking care of themselves,” she said.

Reservations at Acadia National Park’s campgrounds are looking good, said spokesperson Christie Anastasia, who pointed to as the “one-stop shopping” for camping, park pass and other reservations. The park didn’t open its campgrounds in 2020 and reduced capacity for 2021. June reservations are pretty much sold out and May has the odd night still open.

“It seems like people are very excited to come to MDI and Acadia National Park,” she said.

As reservations climb, though, staffing remains a chronic challenge—perhaps worse than ever, noted Witham.

“I often joke that hiring this season is like being on Ebay, someone drives on the island looking for a summer job and the bidding wars begin as we watch the clock tick down,” he said. “The other reality is, we have reached the point where pay is not so much the driving factor, but the fact there simply are not people around to even hire.”

The problem is compounded by lack of affordable employee housing as real estate prices skyrocket, he noted.

“There will be businesses this year that can only partially open and/or have to operate with reduced hours,” Witham said.

Typically, the shortage impacts the ability to fill housekeeping positions the most, said Hastings. This year, it’s hard to fill all positions.

“There’s not a lot you can do when no one is looking for jobs,” he said.