North Conway, NH – Normally, on any Columbus Day weekend in Mt. Washington Valley, NH lodging properties, restaurants, attractions and shops would be packed with Canadians celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving, international and fly-in visitors from throughout the world, and Fryeburg Fair goers. Visitors from New England might traditionally plan to visit during less busy times of year. However, this Columbus Day, and the entire leaf-peeping/Fair season has been quite different than in years past. Just as the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce reported over the summer, this fall the demographics of visitors to the Valley has hailed from within a six-or-less hour drive distance and has skewed younger. Both throughout the summer and fall, the Valley has been packed with a new crowd; often first time visitors to the Valley, seeking outdoor recreation in a destination that has scenic beauty, open air offerings, plus the lodging, restaurants, attractions and tax-free shopping that make it an ideal vacation location. While travel for those living farther or internationally has ground to a halt, business has still boomed in Mt. Washington Valley throughout summer and fall, 2020.
Many businesses went into the fall foliage season with trepidation after fly-in visitors cancelled reservations en masse and a drought threatened fall colors for leaf-peepers. With capacity limits in stores, at attractions, and social distancing cutting back dining tables at restaurants, there was concern that “open the doors and they may not come”. By all accounts from members informally polled by the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, business has boomed throughout the fall – both midweek and weekends. If traffic is any indicator, the fall foliage season, culminating in Columbus Day weekend, has been packed in Mt. Washington Valley.
“Neither drought nor changes in travel patterns for our traditional base put a damper on our fall season,” said Janice Crawford, Executive Director for the Mt. Washington Valley. “It’s testimony to the draw that the Valley offers with amazing scenery and outdoor recreation complimented by all the lodging, dining, shopping and attractions that people who’ve been working and schooling remotely at home seek. Even Mother Nature didn’t let us down, offering a beautiful vista of color throughout the Valley that continues even now, despite a drought” she added.
In interviewing chamber members, it was abundantly clear that visitors from a nearby market filled in for all those who couldn’t fly to Mt Washington Valley this fall. Jen Kovach, co-owner of the Snowvillage described those visiting for Columbus Day explaining, “We found that guests planned their stay about three to four weeks in advance and most stayed two to four days. Primarily, Snowvillage Inn guests were from Southern New Hampshire, Boston area, Rhode Island and New York. All arrived wearing masks and followed our CDC guideline,” she commented.
In looking back at fall 2020, Laura Lemieux, Marketing & Events Director at Settlers Green, told the chamber, “Stores have been busy midweek and weekends throughout the summer and fall. We had a 100% increase in web traffic over last year for the month of September. While we do miss our Canadian shoppers, which account for 15% to 25% of our business on a given year, the increase in domestic travel has made up for it. As an open-air shopping center, we continue to feel we’ll be a popular option as we now turn to holiday shopping after Columbus Day.”
In North Conway Village, filled with independently owned shops and restaurants, Timothy W. Psaledakis, owner of Jewelry by Tim & Friends, had to furlough his staff when the pandemic hit requiring him to do business by appointment only. Yet, Tim told the chamber his fall foliage clients understand and amazingly, even with the doors locked, business is comparable to last year. Tim tells the chamber that doing business in a one-on-one basis by appointment allows more focused and individualized attention. Another win!
Even direct-from-the-manufacturer sales have grown over the summer and fall. Rob Nadler, of Ragged Mountain Equipment, told the chamber that the store’s retail business is up 40% to 50% over last year. “While private label sewn product sales are down from last year, manufacturing and sales of Ragged Mountain products are way up,” said Rob. Like others interviewed, Rob shared that they saw more customers from New York and New Jersey this fall than ever before.
Restaurants owners have been pleasantly surprised by the fall business. “Fall foliage this year was better than expected as far as guests went. “Our dinner counts were about even on the weekends, but up a bit mid-week,” shared Terry O’Brien, owner of the Red Parka Steakhouse and Pub. “We have had a lot of couples visiting, which is par for the course for foliage. We had been concerned that a lot of our older guests would stay away, but the Baby Boomers have been out in force. We have also had more hikers than in past years of all ages,” O’Brien added.
Referring to Columbus Day weekend, Jen Kovach shared, “We could have seated two times as many folks each night for dinner at Max’s Restaurant and Pub. We even decided to open our restaurant on Sunday because the demand was so high,” she shared.
Lodging properties also shared insight into the demand from closer-living guests. Debbie Orloff, owner of the Starlight Lodge told the chamber that they were missing group bookings, reunions, boys golf weekends, girls getaways, and of course Fryeburg Fair goers this year. However, instead they filled their rooms with couples coming from closer states.
Perhaps it was Eleanor (Ellie) Koeppel, General Manager and owner of The Wentworth, An Elegant Inn in Jackson who summed up not only the trends but the emotions of business owners in Mt. Washington Valley. “As businesses adapt, so do our guests,” shared Ellie. “Normally at this time my hotel would be full of visitors from all over the world here to view our infamous foliage. I worried then about what the foliage season would bring, but soon my worries were put to rest when the domestic traveler took their place. The other thing that keeps me optimistic about our industry and our country is the level of support from our core customers. Instead of their usual one or two visits a year we are welcoming many of them once a month. New England is where they feel safe, and in particular of course they feel most safe in Jackson and at The Wentworth Hotel,” finished Ellie.
Snow has already fallen atop Mount Washington. The Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce see’s this as a positive omen for the winter season. And with tax-free shopping and programs like Bring A Friend at Settlers Green and the White Mountains 100-Mile Challenge, encouraging visitors to explore the back roads and smaller towns of the White Mountains region, late fall and early winter are poised to continue to welcome visitors from New England and mid-Atlantic states seeking a fine outdoor refuge offering an alternative to home which has become the office and school all in one.
For more information on planning a vacation to Mt Washington Valley, go to www.MtWashingtonValley.org for complete trip-planning resources. In addition, find all the information you need to plan a New Hampshire vacation at www.VisitNH.gov.