ELLICOTTVILLE — The coronavirus pandemic halted most U.S.-Canada border traffic in March, much to the dismay of Ellicottville businesses that count on Canadians for a significant part of the village’s tourism economy.
One event after another this past year was canceled, including the Fall Festival. Businesses closed, then gradually reopened beginning in June — under strict protocols.
The village, home to two ski resorts — Holiday Valley and the private HoliMont — has adapted.
“We’re doing just fine,” said Brian McFadden, executive director of the Ellicottville Chamber of Commerce. “We miss our Canadian friends. We know them by name. Many own homes here.”
The downtown shops had a record summer, but restaurants had a more difficult time, first with takeout and delivery only, then with reduced capacity as the economy began to reopen.
“We spent a lot of time training our members on COVID-19 regulations and follow-up with the Health Department,” McFadden said. “We needed people to feel safe coming here.”
Merchants also expanded their web presence in order to encourage more ecommerce to help make up for the loss of Canadian visitors.
“People aren’t hanging on by a shoestring,” McFadden said. “They are well-managed. They found other ways. Some shops needed doormen to limit customers. The ones that were hurt the worst were the restaurants.”
McFadden said he was really proud that everyone followed COVID-19 and State Liquor Authority regulations.
“People offered outdoor dining this summer,” he said. “The weather couldn’t have been better.” Things didn’t slow down until mid-November.
People who normally vacation elsewhere came to Ellicottville from other regions of New York, he said.
“We didn’t advertise the Fall Festival,” McFaden said. “We told people not to come. There were no beer tents, no entertainment. No bus parking. Still, people came.
“We’ve weathered it well so far,” McFadden said. Some better than others.
At Holiday Valley, president and general manager Dennis Eshbaugh said the resort had an amazing summer despite the pandemic.
Interestingly, Eshbaugh said there are more Canadian visitors during summer months than the ski and snowboarding season. “Golf was slow out of the gate, but the weather was good. The golf season was ahead of the prior year.”
Despite some restrictions on capacity, the first 10 days of the winter season have been good despite no Canadians buying lift tickets or meals in the lodges. Canadians usually make up about 22% of Holiday Valley’s season passes. “Sales are up this year,” Eshbaugh said.
And while it’s early in the season, Eshbaugh thanks visitors and staff for following the resort’s rules on COVID.
“What I think happened is that we drew new customers from our region who usually vacation out of state,” Eshbaugh said. “It was an unexpected consequence of the pandemic. Our job is to make sure they have a good time.”
State COVID-19 rules set a maximum of 75% of a peak day. “We’re operating now at 65%,” he said.
Jane Eshbaugh, Holiday Valley marketing director, said the expectation is that “people in Western New York will want to get out and do something just like they did this summer. We’re seeing lots of new skiers and snowboarders.”
The U.S.-Canada border will remain closed through January, and it’s unclear whether that closure will be extended further due to the pandemic.
Holiday Valley encourages online purchase of lift tickets, she said. Although there are still walk-up sales, the resort doesn’t want to disappoint someone who drove to ski and can’t get a lift ticket due to capacity issues.
The marketing director said Holiday Valley plans a slimmed down New Year’s Eve celebration, but there will still be a fireworks show starting at 11:45 p.m. and climaxing at midnight. There will be no torchlight parade as in other years, but the groomers will be decorated for a New Year’s Eve parade.
People are asked to watch from their cars in the parking lot.
At HoliMont, marketing manager Jennah Bradley said the private ski-residential resort has been hard hit because nearly half of its members are from Canada and have been unable to come to their Ellicottville homes.
Christmas week and March break are generally busy times for HoliMont, Bradley said. Not this year. It is quiet.
HoliMont is offering trial memberships this year so people can see if it’s something they might like without making any commitment. “We’re also reaching further out in the Southern Tier, in Pennsylvania and Ohio.”
Canadian members are getting a discount this year because they can’t get to their properties, she said.
HoliMont, North American’s largest private ski resort, is open to the public weekdays except Dec. 25-31. Weekday discounted passes are also available.
“It has put a damper on things,” Bradley said of the virus. That won’t stop anyone from making sure visitors have a good time so they will come back.