Why some seasonal hotels across the U.S. are staying open this winter

Molly O'Brien
Special to The Washington Post

Hotels and resorts across the United States have been getting creative this past year in an effort to entice travelers to visit. This winter, a scattering of hospitality brands are finding ways to innovate and offer new experiences during the pandemic as the industry continues to weather the fight against ongoing closures, furloughs and layoffs.

These six properties are staying open this winter for the first time in their respective histories. From Virginia to Colorado, freezing temperatures will not deter these destinations from embracing the opportunity to turn cold weather into a winter adventure.

Traditionally the Tides Inn in Irvington, Virginia, closes after Thanksgiving. But the demand for safe getaway destinations with easy access to the outdoors led management to reconsider. Instead, the inn is staying open through the holidays and into January for the first time in its 73-year history.

"We have seen an increase in our resort visits this past summer and fall, due to people's desire to find wide-open spaces, outdoor recreation and socially distanced stays," says Jason Trollip, the inn's managing director. To appeal to a winter crowd, it developed seasonal offerings such as s'mores-making kits. Guests can take the kits to firepits on the beach and make the treats without mingling with other people. The inn has also limited its dining room to 25 guests and removed bar seating to allow for a minimum of 6 feet between tables.

Virginia Tourism Corp chief executive Rita McClenny confirms a spike in interest in close-to-home travel.

"In Virginia, we're experiencing new business from people across the region that would typically go on vacation abroad to Italy or Australia or South America - somewhere international," McClenny says. She says many of the state's businesses are remaining open longer this winter in response to the increase in local travelers.

"We're finding people venturing out within 300 miles, seeking shorter trips and outdoor locations. We're continuing to market to those who are interested in traveling closer to home," McClenny says.

Halfway across the country, in Nekoosa, Wisconsin, the owners of Sand Valley Golf Resort declared that when there is enough snow for a "snow day" they will be hosting cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating, sledding and winter stargazing activities.

"We're incredibly excited to introduce guests to the raw beauty and unique landscape of central Wisconsin throughout all four seasons," says Chris Keiser, co-owner of Sand Valley. "With a plethora of outdoor adventures to explore and a cozy indoor setting with roaring fires, we feel that we're well-positioned and prepared to give guests that perfect Midwest getaway."

This winter, the Sand Valley Golf Resort in Nekoosa, Wis., will offer cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating, sledding and stargazing.

Social distancing practices have been implemented on-site, including table spacing, line spacing and group limitations both inside and outside. The outdoor, tented dining tables have been spaced at least 6 feet apart and are limited to eight guests per table.

Other properties aim to appeal to travelers by promoting safe indoor activities when the weather outside is frightful. New York's Otesaga Resort Hotel is getting especially comfy to appeal to regional travelers who crave homey accommodations.

The Otesaga Resort Hotel in Cooperstown, New York, has inaugurated curated packages to appeal to winter guests.

"The Otesaga is casually cozy and full of opportunities to explore the beauty of nature or relax and unwind by a warm fire," says the hotel's general manager, Marty Rosenthal.

This year in addition to staying open, they have inaugurated specially curated packages to appeal to guests who prefer a steaming hot chocolate beside a fireplace to snow sports. Travelers can book a "Curl Up and Unwind Special" that includes a handcrafted signature hot chocolate mix made by the on-site culinary team.

Two suites at the Otesaga have their own fireplaces, while the staff makes sure appropriate distances are maintained at the communal ones in the lobby and restaurant. The hotel asks families to stay six feet apart and to wear masks in public spaces.

Other resorts are pivoting toward exclusive property buyouts by families who want to get away and have the means to pay for it. Cape Arundel Inn & Resort in Kennebunkport, Maine, usually closes after New Year's Eve and reopens in the spring. This year, it is staying open during January and February to offer those who want to escape their own living accommodations a place to do so. This also keeps the resort's team members employed and earning a steady income through the winter.

"We wanted to keep our team moving and together. . . . A buyout isn't for everyone, but the people that wanted to get creative with us - we are giving them an option that's also keeping our staff working," says managing director Justin Grimes, referring to booking the entire resort.

The Cape Arundel Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine, usually closes after New Year's Eve and reopens in the spring. This year, it is staying open during January and February.

Grimes says Cape Arundel has been booked solid with buyouts since they began offering this option in June. One family was with them for six weeks and was disappointed when they were forced to leave because another family had booked the property.

A resort buyout may be the most personalized of the experiences that have popped up during the pandemic - but there is a growing interest in offering individualized guest experiences, particularly on the wellness front.

The Veranda House, part of the Nantucket Resort Collection in Massachusetts, has developed new ways to appeal to stressed regional leisure travelers by curating customized wellness packages.

John Bottino, general manager of the Nantucket Resort Collection, is a certified yoga teacher and the former director of wellness at the Eaton hotel in D.C. He has been working with the Veranda House team to expand its on-site wellness services.

"The decision to stay open for the winter was two-pronged: First, there is a need for winter accommodations because we have engineers, consultants, attorneys, pilots who need somewhere to stay. Second, we want to appeal to those that are curious and looking for an off-the-grid experience - and I love being the guide for their journey," Bottino says. He says the goal is to create a place for people to feel like they can truly unwind and recuperate after what has been an especially tough year.

The property's Nantucket Wellness Package begins with a personal virtual consultation with Bottino before the trip to discuss the needs of the individual and to create a customized schedule to meet these needs. This might include a silent walking meditation along the beach, a consultation with a "love" expert and matchmaker, or the chance to connect with a psychic medium or life coach.

Because of the intimate nature of these meetings, a negative coronavirus test is required before arrival. Wellness offerings such as tarot reading, astrology reading, and wellness coaching may take place virtually on-site, or outdoors with social distancing and masks. Yoga classes are restricted to only individuals or family pods, and masks must be worn during the class. There are no hands-on adjustments, as the instructor will remain six feet away from yogis at all times.

Out West in Granby, Colo., River Run RV Resort, an upscale RV, glamping and vacation rental resort destination, normally halts RV rental operations during the winter and sticks to offering bookings in its cabins. But this winter, in response to the ongoing #vanlife craze combined with travelers' interest in booking a socially distant getaway to the great outdoors, the property is offering RV site bookings through the winter.

River Run's on-site general manager, Dave Huber, says there has already been an enthusiastic response to winter RV site bookings, as the property offers easy access to nearby ski resorts.

"As we were nearing October, we still had a lot of demand for RV sites," he says, "and the feedback has been great - that ability to control your own destiny in an RV or travel trailer is what guests really appreciate."

The popularity of winter RV travel has not slowed with the changing season, and River Run expects the demand for its RV sites to remain constant this winter.

"It's a great option for RVers who don't want to put their unit in storage after October - they can continue to utilize their investment throughout the year," Huber says.

No matter the reason behind the decision to stay open this season, these winter retreats are offering travelers a respite from everyday life and the opportunity to continue to support the tourism industry with a mindful escape. Whether it's glamping at River Run or renting out an entire luxury resort in Kennebunkport, this is the inaugural term of experimenting with staying open through the winter - and it could permanently affect the future of seasonal tourism across the nation.