In Maine, businesses offer pay-what-you-can promotions to locals as restrictions keep tourists away

Portland Paddles is among the Maine businesses offering discounts to locals to cover shortfalls resulting from travel restrictions.


By ERINNE MAGEE | Special to The Washington Post | Published: June 4, 2020

Tourism in Maine typically sees an uptick this time of year. But with a mandated two-week self-quarantine for those visiting or returning to the state, it has seen an uptick in cancellations instead. The shortfall has prompted some of the state’s businesses to offer a pay-what-you-can promotion for locals. Acadia Yurts and Wellness Center, a luxury glamping destination just outside the gates of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, is one of them.

Co-founders Aaron Sprague and Karen Roper brainstormed the promotion over the winter when they were trying to figure out how to manage the short lulls in occupancy that come following Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. When the 14-day-quarantine was established, they applied the same idea to filling their June vacancies. Within 48 hours, 300 applications had been received and the entire property had been booked for June, with additional gaps filled in July and August.

"We have found solace in the park every day during quarantine and wanted to be able to offer that to fellow Mainers," Sprague said.

Promotions like the one at Acadia Yurts - which create goodwill locally and keep cash coming in at a time when travel restrictions reduce the number of out-of-state visitors - are among the many tactics that tourism-reliant businesses have adopted as they struggle to navigate the first phase of reopening. "Pay-what-you-can is a creative business practice for gradually reopening lodging and travel businesses," said Larry Yu, a professor of Hospitality Management and Tourism Studies at George Washington University’s School of Business. It also makes sense to forge relationships with locals at a time when more people will be vacationing close to home, he said.

"The personal stories that came with the applications were heartwarming," Roper said. Many described the struggles and losses that families have experienced - financial burdens, home schooling, working from home, missed opportunities like milestone trips with family or canceled summer camps.

Many of the applicants simply wanted something to look forward to. "We received a hand-drawn picture of children sitting around a campfire with their friends as well as a fun family photo taken from outside the house with their faces pressed against the glass like they were trapped in quarantine," Roper said.

It’s common for Maine residents to explore the state by day but return home because of the hefty price tags attached to overnight accommodations, especially along the coast. Sprague said about 20 percent of the applicants have never visited Acadia National Park because it’s too expensive.

"This season is going to be remarkably different than any other, and we do think it is going to create ripples of change in our future offerings," Sprague said. "We are excited to provide Mainers with a chance to enjoy the beauty in our own state."

Others are joining Acadia Yurts in offering residents an unprecedented discount. A group of four sister properties in the Midcoast Region followed suit to fill rooms left empty by out-of-state cancellations. The Newagen Seaside Inn, Linekin Bay Resort, the Sheepscot Harbour Village Resort, and the Russell House Bed & Breakfast, all managed by the Midcoast Hospitality Group, received more than 1,100 applicants for the pay-what-you-can rooms.

Erin Stodder, the company’s vice president of marketing, said the properties were overwhelmed by the positive response, and plans to offer something similar to Maine residents annually.

Local tourism officials say the pay-what-you-can gambit is characteristic of the Pine Tree State. "Mainers have always been practical and resilient with a strong sense of community," said Steven Lyons, director of Maine’s tourism office. "We applaud the entrepreneurial spirit of Acadia Yurts and similar programs in finding ways to keep their businesses open while strengthening community ties during this difficult time."

Businesses in other sectors of the state’s tourism industry are extending pay-what-you-can offers as well. Among them is Portland Paddle, which operates kayak and stand-up paddleboard tours around Casco Bay. Zack Anchors, who co-founded the company with Erin Quigley in 2013, estimates that half its customer base is out-of-state tourists.

"If Mainers don’t sign up for our trips and lessons, then we can’t run them," Anchors said. "We are probably going to lose money, but at least we’ll keep our guides working, and we’ll have our operation fully ready to go when tourists return."

Portland Paddle received a Paycheck Protection loan, and honors the intent of the program by trying to use the funds to keep as many people employed as possible. Because the owners can use those funds to cover payroll, it leaves room for customers to pay whatever they can afford.

"I think people will pay as much as they reasonably can if they respect your business’s values and view the management and workers as active members of their community," Anchors said. "It’s also important that businesses make pay-what-you-can as easy as possible for people. It shouldn’t be a gimmick that only applies in very limited circumstances, and ideally people shouldn’t have to jump through lots of hoops to choose their price."

Anchors said the pandemic has underscored the need for businesses to establish local roots. "Our business model is heavily reliant on seasonal tourism, but we’ve always been very deliberate about building a local customer base and serving our community as much as we can," he said.

Portland Paddle, like Acadia Yurts, is considering extending the pay-what-you-can offer to Mainers through the summer - or even making it permanent.

"If your business is 100 percent dependent on tourists, when tourism declines you’re in deep trouble," Anchors said. "Moreover, locals make great customers. They return often, they bring back their friends and families, they provide free advertising through word-of-mouth, and they often turn from customers into friends."

Acadia Yurts in Southwest Harbor Maine.