The good news for Minnesota’s resorts this summer is that they will be able to operate. At this point, it will not be the COVID-19 virus shutting them down.
Yet the uncertainty of the worldwide pandemic has already made its mark on the industry.
Ron Sugden of Bonnie Beach Resort on Clitherall Lake is pleased about the state government’s green light for the summer season but he has already seen plenty of cancellations, along with others in the resort industry. Bonnie Beach lost business in March, May and June even before being notified Tuesday night that the summer resort season is a go.
“We will be opening tentatively May 4 depending on the stay at home order,” Sugden said. “We have that opportunity to be open if we desire. I know that in the industry some people might hold off just to see where this thing goes.”
Ron and his wife, Pat, have operated Bonnie Beach since 1996. Their resort has been open year-around but their summer trade is very light until mid-May.
Bonnie Beach will not be offering their usual communal activities in the lodge and the playground. “We have been following the CDC and the Minnesota Department of Health directives since this thing happened,” Sugden said. “The social distancing will be a change.”
Most of the guests who vacation at Bonnie Beach come from Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. With relationships stretching back decades the resort’s customers are very important to the Sugdens.
“That is one of the nice things about our industry, the relationship we develop with our customers,” Ron said.
Weslake Resort is located on West Lost Lake north of Underwood. Like the Sugdens, Weslake owner Lonnie Ballweg prizes his guests.
“Ninety-five percent of our clientele are returning customers,” said Ballweg.
Weslake will be opening May 5.
“We just received notice yesterday that we would be allowed to open up,” Ballweg said. “Generally our first customers come between May 5 and the fishing opener.
Clean and modern, Weslake is generally full during the summer months with a couple of hundred guests making reservations annually.
“They come here to spend some family time fishing, golf, hiking and enjoy each other’s company,” Ballweg said.
When Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz evoked emergency peacetime powers March 16 to give health care providers time to counter the pandemic, it hit the resort industry hard.
“I got sick to my stomach and it wasn’t long after that I started to get cancellations,” Ballweg said. “They were specifically canceling because of the COVID-19 threat.”
At this point, Ballweg is expecting only half of his usual summer guests to visit Weslake.
“One of the challenges we have during this time is that resorting is more of a lifestyle and we work very hard to keep our current clientele,” Ballweg said. “Something like this is catastrophic, not only to us but to our entire industry.”
While the uncertainty of lining up summer help has been troublesome, Ballweg has been chiefly disappointed by the lack of financial assistance by the government.
“It’s very frustrating to have lake resorts left out of state assistance.”
Ballweg pointed to a 2016 study conducted by the University of Minnesota-Morris on the business climate for resorts in Otter Tail County.
Resort guests spent a total of nearly $47 million in four areas - groceries or liquor, dining or bars, transportation and entertainment. Their contribution to Otter Tail County topped that of seasonal residents by more than $13 million.
The most up to date and accurate guidance state Rep. Bud Nornes has received from the Capitol is:
• The hotel portions of resorts (including rented cabins) can open as planned and can accept guests.
• Guests do not have to be members of a critical sector to stay at a resort.
• Communal amenities may not be open for use.
• While resorts can accept visitors, the stay-at-home order continues to discourage unnecessary travel, and the order asks people to remain close to their homes.
• Resorts do not have to open if they are not comfortable doing so.
• Maintenance and cleaning staff can begin work now to prepare for the season.
“Health and safety still must remain top priority, so employees and guests are encouraged to do their part to observe social distancing protocol,” Nornes said.