Major resorters in the lakes area report similar changes in how vacations and resort business changed since Sept. 11.
Vacationers planned getaways on the spur of the moment, family reunions increased, and conference business and group sales experienced an expected fall-off. A number of factors contributed to the change in conference business, including the economic recession, volatile stock market and uncertainty about future attacks.
Immediate effects were easier to relate directly to the terror attacks. There was a loss of conference business as planes were grounded in the hours and days after Sept. 11. And families may have found the loss of life that day inspired a renewed reason to take time from busy lives to spend time together. Slightly more pedestrian but in the mix is the wet weather this spring and early summer.
Major area resorts with conference facilities reported being able to pick up family, and what is considered social, business while their business clients decreased. Customers were more cautious about additional spending during their vacations and cut back on dining out, golfing and other recreational use.
But, overall, resorters were upbeat about their economic future and reported a good season, keeping pace with or exceeding last year's profits.
At Grand View Lodge in Nisswa, Assistant General Manager Paul Welch said the conference business definitely softened. "People just don't want to fly and they don't want to put their employees in harm's way," Welch said.
The drive-in business from the five-state area was not a problem, Welch said. Golfers kept coming. "That really helped us," he said. "Our family business was very strong this year. ... We had no fall-off there. ... People want to be with families."
Welch said Grand View had a good year and conference guests are coming back.
"It's looking up," he said.
Dutch Cragun, owner of Cragun's Conference and Golf Resort in East Gull Lake, had two meetings with speakers set for Sept. 12, 2001. The speakers were to arrive from Washington, D.C., and New York City. Needless to say those guests did not make the trip. The Gull Lake resort experienced a loss of business immediately after Sept. 11 and into the early fall a year ago. Most of those groups rescheduled. But when they came back the numbers of attendees had fallen. Businesses were less likely to send larger groups that also were going out for golf tournaments. Cragun's responded with charity events set at the golf course.
"That's how we are coping," Cragun said. More active promotion was used to attract vacationers and Cragun said the resort catered to family reunion groups. "I think the 9/11 residue is the awareness you never know what is going to happen the next day -- the next week."
He said the drop in conference business was balanced by an increase in the resort's social business from families, couples and reunions.
But there was a noticeable change.
Cragun said reservations came clearly at the last minute and followed a pattern he had not seen since the 1950s before resorts established toll-free WATS phone lines and long before Web sites. It was a pattern Cragun said he learned was repeated elsewhere. Weekend nights did not fill up until the Wednesday before.
In an extreme example, Bill Crumley, a marketing director with Madden's Resort in East Gull Lake, said a customer called from a cell phone on the way out of the Twin Cities.
There has been more business this fall than last spring, Cragun said. He noted the resort is now keeping even with last year's profits.
At Breezy Point Resort, General Manager Dave Gravdahl said there have been fewer corporate conventions but many family reunions. Gravdahl said he did not think Sept. 11 really affected the resort and while the corporate market is down, it will be back.
Alan Gunsbury, owner of the Quarterdeck Resort and Restaurant on Gull Lake, said the loss of business had more to do with a string of bad winters with little snow for recreation and faulty group marketing efforts. In May, Gunsbury reported business being down 15 percent to 17 percent, a figure he believes is in line with other operations. By July that number had narrowed to being down just 3 percent versus last year. Gunsbury said August business was equal to last year. Fall bookings are slower, but may get better, Gunsbury said.
He said customers may not have eaten at the restaurant as often or rented as many items. Others told him their companies had to downsize and lay off employees or reduce shifts in the down economy.
Jack Ruttger, owner of Ruttger's Bay Lake Lodge near Deerwood, said business is up when compared to a year ago, but a year ago business was not very good.
"I think we've been hurt more by the general economy than 9/11," Ruttger said. Spring group sales were hurt. Ruttger said the April, May and June business was not what it should have been, but family social business from mid-June to Labor Day was better. Business client numbers are also going up. Ruttger said when business clients are not doing well they cut off spending for resort-based gatherings and meetings.
"The good news is our September now, which is convention (based), is really doing well all of a sudden -- it really has come alive."
Ruttger said September and October business is excellent and convention bookings for 2003 are strong. He said the strength of September sales surprised him.
"Maybe this economy is starting to turn around now so that's the good news," he said. "Maybe we are starting to come out of it now. ... the happiest news to me is that 2003 is looking up -- if we don't have a war or another terrorist attack."
Crumley, of Madden's, said a huge Burger King client could not fly in after Sept. 11 because the planes were grounded across the nation. He said this year has been called a Rolaids season with weekends open until close to their arrival and companies booking conferences 30 days out instead of the usual year in advance. Crumley said it was "certainly a change for the industry."
But Crumley said Madden's had a strong year considering the economy, which was slipping before Sept. 11.
"It's been good all things considered," Crumley said. "It's not a record-breaking year, but it's certainly above other years when we've had similar economic climates."
Crumley said September is shaping up and the weather was pretty solid after the early part of June, which helped. He said the booking forecast on bigger groups is strong. But the weak group bookings may have helped bring in families who were never able to get in to area resorts with short notice.
Madden's was booked in the high 60 percent numbers two weeks before July Fourth, a holiday weekend that is typically fully booked by June 1. By the holiday, the resort was jammed, Crumley said, adding: "... It was a little different phenomenon."
The lakes area clients, many from what is considered driving distance like Kansas City, Chicago, and Omaha, Neb., did not have to consider a fear of flying. Others, who have been family reunion clients for years, boarded planes to get here this summer. Crumley said talking to guests was interesting as some were OK with flying and others said they would not fly at all and were at the resort for the first time because they wanted to stay in the state.
Crumley does not expect that level of uncertainty to go away easily.
"The veil of our untouchability for these actions was certainly shattered by that event and I think that is going to be in the back of people's minds for generations, but I think people tend to persevere and that's the nature of people in this country."
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