By this time of year — Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of the summer tourist season — visitors typically are pouring into Lancaster County.
They should be packing the county’s most popular tourist attraction, Sight & Sound Theatres, at a record pace, eager to see its new production, “Queen Esther.”
They should be filling passenger cars at Strasburg Rail Road, climbing on rides at Dutch Wonderland, bellying up to Miller’s and Shady Maple’s smorgasbords, sight-seeing through Amish Country, filling the Fulton Steamboat Inn, clogging Lincoln Highway East.
Instead, theaters, restaurants, hotels and stores are dark, with millions of tourists and thousands of employees staying home, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The invisible coronavirus has done the unthinkable; with stunning speed and reach, it’s shut down the sixth-largest segment of the county economy for 10 weeks and counting.
After its silent spring, the tourism industry still has no idea when Gov. Tom Wolf or local officials will deem the coronavirus weakened enough to upgrade the county to “green,” allowing tourist businesses to safely reopen, albeit with restrictions such as social distancing.
And when the industry does reopen, it faces more uncertainty.
Can the businesses make a profit while operating at a fraction of capacity, because of social distancing, or find enough government aid to make up the difference? Will visitors feel safe enough to travel?
And even if they do, now that the pandemic has triggered the worst unemployment since the Great Depression, will they have the money to spend on a vacation?
“There’s just so much uncertainty, you really can’t rule out a ridiculously wide range of outcomes,” said Adam Ozimek, chief economist for tech firm Upwork and a Lancaster resident.
Joel Cliff, spokesman for Discover Lancaster, the county tourism-promotion agency, took a guardedly optimistic view.
Cliff is “cautiously hopeful” that tourism here will start to pick back up sometime in June, in time to likely generate “a moderate at best” volume of business for later in the summer, which could then slowly improve further through the fall, the holidays and into 2021.
“The travel industry has always been resilient. It has always bounced back. We don’t expect that to be any different this time. We will likely be into a new normal, certainly for a while. But ultimately, people love to explore,” he said.
Here’s how the pandemic has devastated eight of the county’s leading tourist businesses and how their leaders see their new normal.
‘Compromises for the future’
After investing 3½ years of work and at least $6 million for sets, costumes, salaries and other expenses, Sight & Sound was ready for its latest original musical, “Queen Esther,” to premiere March 14.
Sight & Sound was confident it had produced another blockbuster. The number of tickets sold for the 10-month run before the show had even debuted was a Sight & Sound record, prompting Sight & Sound to believe as many as 900,000 customers would see the show this year.
Since most Sight & Sound customers patronize other tourist attractions while they’re here for the show, that signaled a tremendous year ahead for the county tourist industry overall.
But COVID-19 squashed those hopes. Two days before the premiere, Sight & Sound postponed the opening. After initially setting tentative dates for reopening, only to have the pandemic’s persistence force further delays, Sight & Sound for now says it’s closed indefinitely.
Meanwhile, Sight & Sound has canceled 111 performances so far — which would have generated perhaps $13 million in ticket sales — and furloughed 90% of its 475 employees in Strasburg.
"We’re thinking a lot about our team and we're thinking a ton about our community ...," said CEO Matt Neff.
“But the thing we think about first is the mission,” he said. “That’s the hard part, to think about the folks who would have been in their seats, experiencing a message of hope.”
Whenever the lights can come back on, Sight & Sound will need to accommodate the new normal. To provide social distancing, Sight & Sound will be able to sell only 500 to 800 seats in its 2,000-seat theater, among other operational changes.
“It requires creativity, but we’re in the business of creativity,” Neff said.
Neff indicated that Sight & Sound has the fiscal strength to operate at 25% to 40% of capacity in the short term but noted the strain it will create long term.
“The challenge is, it means compromises for the future,” Neff said. “Like right now, because we work ahead on shows, we’ve been full speed on production on a new show for 2022. But at some point, you start to have to question whether we can afford to continue production toward that new show.”
Outlook ebbs from robust to bleak
Like Sight & Sound, the hospitality businesses operated by Thomas E. Strauss Inc. — including Miller’s Smorgasbord, AmishView Inn & Suites and Smokehouse BBQ & Brews — were anticipating a robust 2020.
“Prior to March, most people in our industry weren’t concerned with the level of business. They were concerned about whether we have enough staff to fill all the jobs,” said CEO Al Duncan.
But when COVID-19 arrived, expectations of an 18% jump in revenue were quickly reversed by returning hundreds of customer deposits, seeing more than $750,000 worth of business evaporate and implementing the first mass-layoff in company history.
Typically, at this time of year, the Strauss operations employ 250 to 260 people. Now it’s 14.
Whenever the hospitality businesses can reopen, Duncan indicated that the new normal will affect Miller’s Smorgasbord the most. He envisions the restaurant changing to an a la carte menu and using only half of its 400 seats, all to provide social distancing.
That will be good for employee and customer physical health — assuming tourists are willing to travel again, which Duncan wonders about — but not so good for the restaurant’s fiscal health.
“You need certain economies of scale to be financially solvent. And that’s our industry, not just us. If you have very limited seating capacity, based on social distancing, can you be open and have enough income to pay the bills?” he wondered.
Phil Weaver is asking the same question.
Weaver, co-president/co-CEO of Shady Maple, which includes a roughly 2,000-seat smorgasbord, said operating at limited capacity won’t work for the buffet.
The county’s busiest restaurant, with a buffet line longer than three bowling lanes placed end to end, requires big crowds to be profitable.
“If I don’t have people, it’s very difficult for me to make money. I make my money on the numbers of people that come to eat at my place,” he said.
Weaver said operating at 50% capacity would be akin to the slow winter months when he’s lucky to break even at the East Earl Township smorgasbord, with 300-plus employees.
While some a la carte meals might be necessary for the short term once restaurant dining rooms can reopen, Weaver said that’s not the experience that was drawing 1.4 million customers a year.
“I really hope come September and October we’re back operating how Shady Maple has always operated,” he said.
Changing with the times
Steve Barrall, vice president at Strasburg Rail Road, said that company is changing with the times too.
Whenever the state allows the railroad’s passenger trains to roll again, customers will see that the railroad has adjusted its practices to provide social distancing and contact-free ticketing.
For instance, passenger cars will be no more than half full, allowing customers to spread out. The railroad will add cars to trains as needed to provide for the extra spacing. (It has 20 in its fleet.)
In addition, customers no longer will buy paper tickets at the station. They’ll buy them in advance and bring a digital version or a printout, which the conductor will scan.
“When the time comes, we can show our fans and loyal visitors that we’re ready,” Barrall said.
While the railroad also operates a freight line, which is booming, and has its mechanical shop making medical products such as trays and carts, there’s no financial substitute for getting the passenger trains running once more.
In normal times, they carry more than 250,000 passengers a year and generate 70% of the railroad’s revenue.
With them sidetracked, the railroad has idled all 110 part-time employees and furloughed 39 of 65 full-time workers, though nearly all furloughed full-timers have been recalled thanks to a federal loan that provides eight weeks of wages for them.
“My biggest concern at the moment is, if we’re not able to open soon enough in the summer, particularly July and August, that has significant consequences for sure,” Barrall said. And whenever the railroad reopens, “are people going to be there?”
‘We just saw our calendar collapse’
American Music Theatre shared a similar experience — seeing what looked like a record year ahead melt down in a few hectic weeks.
Like Sight & Sound, the shutdown arrived abruptly March 12. Country singer Martina McBride and her band were set up on stage for a concert that night; 1,300 of the 1,600 seats were sold. But her management pulled the plug.
The next day, “we just saw our calendar collapse,” said director of operations Brandon Martin; AMT downsized its payroll accordingly, from 100-plus to “a handful.” As of now, AMT expects to stay dark through July.
In that March 12 to July 31 time period, AMT had 40 concerts booked plus 82 performances of its new original show, “Britain’s Best.”
AMT expected to sell more than 80,000 tickets to those events. AMT has been able to reschedule “the vast majority” of those shows — some for the second time. "Britain's Best" got bumped to 2021.
"I hate to say it, but our primary work right now involves getting folks their refunds for shows that have been canceled or postponed. It’s hard to stay motivated when the bulk of your workload involves undoing work that you’ve done,” admitted Martin.
Whenever AMT can resume hosting concerts, the new normal will pose immense challenges, in Martin’s view.
Like the executives at other tourist attractions, he wondered how many customers will return, and when.
He also wondered how to balance the need to provide social distancing, which will force AMT to operate at 30% to 40% of capacity, with the cold fact that AMT would be unprofitable at that usage.
“While right now is difficult, the long-term is equally or more concerning. We operate with profit margins that aren’t that big. They wouldn’t allow us to operate effectively with capacity reduced to that level. We would not be viable,” said Martin.
He continued: “To allow for a reduction that great would require reformatting the type of entertainment we put on stage. It would really have to be a complete revisioning of what we put on our stage, and that’s not something at this point that we’re considering. Our brand is what it is.
“At this point, we’re trying to take any steps imaginable to ensure that we’ll be able to re-emerge from this to continue to do what it is that we do,” Martin said.
Getting ready to reopen
Dutch Wonderland has started getting ready to reopen, although it’s unclear when that will happen, said spokesman Jeffrey Eisenberg.
The children’s amusement park is “picking back up with our seasonal recruitment efforts in anticipation of our 2020 season,” performing virtual interviews with job seekers, he said.
Dutch Wonderland plans to hire roughly the same number of seasonal employees for this summer as it has in the past — about 500, he said.
Eisenberg declined to discuss COVID-19’s impact on Dutch Wonderland’s yearly attendance and revenue so far, citing the policy of its owner, Palace Entertainment.
However, he did describe the pandemic’s impact on the park’s reopening preparations, outlining the additional steps Dutch Wonderland is taking “to keep everyone safe and provide confidence about visiting an attraction like ours.”
Those measures at the Lincoln Highway East attraction will include promoting regular and thorough hand washing, installing hand-sanitizer dispensers, more frequent cleaning and employee education.
Leaning more on local
Once Wolf moves Lancaster County to “yellow” on June 5, as he announced Friday, most of Kitchen Kettle Village in Intercourse will be able to open. That's because "yellow" allows stores to operate if they have entrances/exits that open to the outdoors, not into a mall.
Its shops will limit the number of customers inside at a time; its restaurants will be limited to takeout.
Meanwhile, Kitchen Kettle's Jam & Relish Kitchen and The Olive Basin opened for the season Friday. As food stores, they are allowed to open while the county is "red," which shutters all businesses except those deemed "life sustaining."
Lisa Horn, Kitchen Kettle’s “director of fun,” says the retail village’s 40-plus stores and restaurants will also benefit from its abundant outdoor areas that allow visitors to spread out and feel safe while shopping. Horn said extra outside tables will be set up this year.
Yet Horn says Kitchen Kettle’s visitors are still expected to be way down this summer since it relies heavily on secondary stops from tourists who come here to go to attractions such as Sight & Sound or Dutch Wonderland.
“Even with a move to ‘yellow,’ it’s not going to make for a great year. We’re really going to have to move to 'green' if we’re expecting our sales to even get close to what we had been hoping and planning for,” she said.
With many tour groups already calling off visits, Horn said Kitchen Kettle is pivoting to appeal to locals for whom a staycation could include the exploration of a unique attraction close to home.
“There are a lot of people that live in Lancaster County who have never visited Kitchen Kettle because sometimes we are seen as a little touristy,” she said. “People want to get out and they want to get out and do things safely, and that’s what we want to be able to offer.”
Finding new ways to draw crowds
The prohibition on large gatherings prompted by COVID-19 forced Mount Hope Estate and Winery to cancel its early May brewfest, which was expected to bring 18,000 people to the 85-acre estate and grounds along Route 72 near the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
In addition, theater productions and tasting events showcasing the beer, wine and spirits produced at Mount Hope have also been canceled, although the products are still being sold through curbside pickup.
To help fill the suddenly vacant slots in Mount Hope’s events calendar as well as the empty space at its fairgrounds, Mount Hope will soon begin hosting weekend drive-in movies and concerts.
Scott Bowser, who owns Mount Hope with his wife, Heather, said the drive-in events maintain some activity at the site of the annual Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire but don’t do much to salvage what looks to be a grim summer tourist season.
“It’s more of an effort to keep people employed,” Bowser said.
As the restrictions on gatherings stretch into their third month, Bowser says he’s becoming increasingly worried about the possible impact on the annual Renaissance Faire, which is scheduled to begin its 13-week run Aug. 8.
“Renaissance Faire is really why we’re in business,” said Bowser noting that it operates with 1,000 staff members and last year drew more than 200,000 visitors.
Bowser said he’s been considering possible ways to maintain social distance during the event that includes stage shows and roving actors in period dress, but he doesn’t really have a plan if it needs to be called off.
“I’m not sure what we would do at that point,” he said. “I would hope there would be (federal aid) programs so venues such as ourselves don’t go away.”