Aitkin County is home to a handful of large resorts that cater to conference guests, wedding parties and other events in addition to family vacations.
In addition to those higher visibility resorts, tourism in the county relies on dozens of small, family owned and operated resorts. These small businesses are more seasonal and their owners depend on good summer traffic and bookings to earn their income for the year.
Now that Memorial Day weekend has come and gone and summer is unofficially here, the Aitkin Independent Age reached out to some area resorts to see how the summer has been treating them thus far, and what their business outlooks are for the rest of the season.
Reopening after COVID-19 carries with it a list of rules, regulations and recommendations for resort owners and others in the hospitality industry.
The website www.minnesota-resorts.com observes that resorts have a natural appeal as people come out of various levels of COVID-19 lock down, because they are naturally fairly COVID-19 safe, tend to be relatively isolated, are naturally conducive to distancing and can often be found close to home. With Minnesotans anxious to get outdoors and experience a real vacation, how is that translating into business for resorts in and around Aitkin County?
BLUE MOON RESORT
Memorial Day Weekend 2021 was better for the Hill City resort than two years ago; about the same as last year, which was “a great year” for Randy and Tammy Fett, and son and daughter-in-law, Dylan and Laci.
They are not booked up for the summer, but this year they are on track to do at least as well as last year. Staffing has not been an issue for the Blue Moon. The Fetts hire a couple of local cleaning staff and have numerous people from Hill City apply for jobs.
When the Fett family bought the resort on the shore of Hill Lake in 2013, it had been shut down for three years. They then closed the resort for two years to do construction and remodeling. They have been operating now for five years.
“We are busy but are not booked up for the summer by any means,” said owner Randy Fett. “We would like to welcome more people.”
THE WHITEWOOD RESORT
Wanda McGuire and her husband Rob Doenges own and operate The Whitewood Resort on Spirit Lake in Aitkin.
McGuire said last week, “The resort is doing OK; our biggest problem is that we are desperate for help; it seems that nobody is ready to get back to work.”
The Whitewood is relatively booked up for the early part of the summer, but they still have openings in August. McGuire thinks that it was a serious oversight on the part of the legislature that small family operated businesses like theirs have had difficulty qualifying for government COVID-19 aid programs.
McGuire believes the fact that programs are based on payroll leaves out some small businesses that rely on family to do all the work.
“We have to get up a little earlier and work a little longer,” she said “It’s just Ron and me to do the work.”
There are a lot of regulations for lodging providers to follow in order to be open for business. Last year the list of dos and don’ts was even more onerous than this year, McGuire said, because there were so many unknowns about how COVID-19 could be transmitted. Because they had already been doing everything to be compliant during the summer of 2020, this year it was easier to get ready to welcome guests.
“This year, cleaning supplies are back in stock; last year we were scrambling to purchase the permitted cleaning chemicals – even soap was in short supply.”
BIG SANDY LODGE & RESORT
At the other end of the size spectrum is Big Sandy Lodge & Resort in McGregor, Minnesota.
Located on the shore of Big Sandy Lake, the resort employs 50-60 people during the summer, said general manager Jackie Winkelman. The lodging includes cabin and town home rentals.
The resort is owned by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and managed by Maadaadizi Investments.
This resort has amenities to host large events such as weddings, conferences and banquets. There is a full service restaurant, golf course and a boat rental service.
Until last week, the resort was having trouble getting enough seasonal staff, like so many other resorts.
“Suddenly last week, people started applying for positions we were advertising,” Winkelman said on Monday. “Because of that, we will be reinstating breakfast service in our restaurant and opening the restaurant seven days per week from the end of June through Labor Day weekend.”
Memorial Day weekend this year was busy and the resort is booked up on weekends for the rest of the summer. Weekday bookings are still available.
RUTTGER’S BAY LAKE
Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge and Resort started out as a small family guest house and has grown over the years, with members of the Ruttger’s family being involved up to the present.
The resort claims the honor of having opened Minnesota’s first resort golf course in 1921, later adding a second 18-hole championship course.
Accommodation choices include villas, lodge accommodations and lake-front cabins on Bay Lake.
Group sales manager Alisha Stevens said on Monday that Memorial Day weekend was “good” for the resort–she estimated they were at 50-60% capacity that weekend. The first weekend in June, the resort was almost full.
Ruttger’s employs 200 workers, many of whom are seasonal and live at the resort or in the community surrounding it. Stevens said there are several international employees living at the resort this summer.
The resort has adjusted to post-COVID-19 life by having staff carefully sanitizing rooms and facilities between occupants. Because Ruttger’s has not had sufficient applicants to hire additional housekeeping staff, the resort has suspended daily housekeeping in occupied units to reduce the chance of spread.
Food service staff at the resort are continuing to be masked on the job, and other staff carry masks in case they need to wear them as they go about their work. Stevens was jubilant about large groups starting to book for meetings and conferences again. “My groups are coming back!” she said.
The outlook for the remainder of 2021 is bright for Ruttger’s. They are already more than 60% booked on weekends for the remainder of the season, Stevens said.