Fewer than 20 miles apart, the vacation rental agencies Cottage Connection of Maine and Newcastle Vacation Rentals are experiencing the coronavirus pandemic very differently.
Boothbay-based Cottage Connection of Maine has suffered during the pandemic, according to co-founder Audrey Miller.
“We’re tearing our hair out and we have been since March,” Miller said.
More than half of her clients – many of whom come from faraway states like Colorado, Florida, and Texas – canceled reservations this spring due to anxieties about the coronavirus. If she is lucky, the business might recoup some of those losses with longer-term reservations as the state begins to reopen. But much of the damage has been done.
“What are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to survive the winter?” Miller said. “It’s tragic, what’s going on.”
Miller, who also serves as vice president of the industry group Northeast Vacation Rental Professionals, said she and her colleagues have asked Maine’s government for help repeatedly, to no avail.
“We keep getting ignored,” Miller said. “It’s very frustrating because (Gov.) Janet Mills lumps us in with the rest of lodging, but her rules don’t apply to us. Vacation rentals are the safest place someone could come in and stay.”
Miller said the state-mandated 14-day quarantine for visitors from anywhere beyond Maine, Vermont, or New Hampshire should not apply to vacation rentals. Cottages and other rental properties allow families to maintain physical distancing, whereas guests of hotels and inns share closer quarters.
Rental homes have the added benefit of kitchen access, which means guests can cook for themselves and dine inside, rather than relying on restaurants for all their meals.
In her capacity as vice president of Northeast Vacation Rental Professionals, Miller has heard similar tales of woe from a dozen other rental agencies across the state. However, the experience has not been universal.
Just up Route 1, Newcastle Vacation Rentals is having a banner year. In fact, reservations are coming in faster than rental agents Laurel Olson and Susan Hodgdon can fill them.
In the past 10 days alone, the agency has received around 40 reservation requests. “It was kind of a shock,” said Hodgdon. “To be fair, we did have cancellations, but the amount of reservations we’ve had recently has made up for it.”
Many of the new reservations come from mid-Atlantic states like New York, which are within driving distance of Maine. A handful of inquiries came in from Vermont and New Hampshire in the days after Mills announced relaxed restrictions on travel from those states.
Olson speculated that reservations might be coming from vacationers who had international or long-distance travel plans canceled due to the pandemic and wanted a getaway with a reduced risk of infection.
“People are a little leery of hotels right now,” Olson said. “With us, it’s a little more private and a little more rural.”
Guests of the agency’s rentals have expressed understanding – even enthusiasm – about quarantining on their rental properties for the mandatory two weeks.
“With us, they can have their own space,” Hodgdon said. “A lot of houses are located on the water, so a lot of guests can do stuff outside.”
Both Cottage Connection and Newcastle Vacation Rentals have implemented strict safety precautions.
“Our health and safety rules are very stringent,” Miller said. “We certainly don’t want to bring the virus to Maine.”
To this end, Miller’s business now offers grocery delivery directly to guests’ doorsteps. Olson and Hodgdon help guests connect with area grocers offering delivery services.
Olson and Hodgdon are also asking guests to sanitize certain areas of the rental houses – counters, tables, and doorknobs – before checking out to reduce risk for cleaning crews.
Olson and Hodgdon have noticed that recent inquiries have emphasized Wi-Fi access, a pattern they attribute to the rise of telecommuting. Other trends, like an influx of reservation requests made through the vacation rental website Airbnb, reflect emerging patterns in the industry that are unconnected to the pandemic.
“It’s interesting to think about what this year would have been like without COVID-19,” Hodgdon said.
Of course, it’s impossible to know, but Hodgdon is pretty sure of one thing.
“It would have definitely been less harried,” she said.