How a Finger Lakes hospitality business thrived despite coronavirus: ‘The outdoors saved us’

AURORA — Like many businesses in Upstate New York, the Inns of Aurora in this tiny village on the northeastern shore of Cayuga Lake was blind-sided by the coronavirus pandemic.

Revenues this past March and April at the Cayuga County business “were just terrible,” said Sue Edinger, chief operating officer for the Inns of Aurora, which features the Aurora Inn and the1833 Kitchen and Bar, the Fargo Bar and Grill and four other separate houses (inns) for guests. When all are in play, more than 50 rooms are available for visitors.

In June, when most other businesses were hurting, things at the Inns of Aurora took an unexpected upward turn. Rooms began filling up and reservations picked up through the summer and into the fall. In fact, room revenues from June to October more than doubled compared to years past.

Demand was so great that the room prices were increased from an average of $225 a night to $400.

The secret?

“The outdoors is what saved us,” said Edinger, who credits former Fargo manager Matt Stevenson, a lifelong outdoors enthusiast and his boss, Laura Coburn, director of serenity and programming, with coming up with and carrying out a highly successful list of guided outdoors experiences that were embraced by guests. They also built more than three miles of outdoor trails.

This spring the Inns of Aurora built a nature trail stretching more than three miles through its property. The trail system, used by guests, is also open to the public.

It turned into a perfect storm. Most of the guests were from around the state (due to New York’s quarantine policies). Many came from New York City and were more than willing to pay to get away and for the extra experiences. For a good number of guests, it was the first time they had visited the Finger Lakes.

“We offered a remote location, a high-end place with numerous cleanliness awards ,” Edinger said. “We switched our programming to things guests felt safe doing and we offered plenty of space to do them in.”

“With the pandemic, people were coming here and connecting back with their childhood, back to nature,” she said, adding that for a number of guests it was the first time they’d ever done anything like catching a fish or shooting a bow and arrow.

The Inns of Aurora’s new nature trail includes a small archery range, which has proven to be extremely popular with guests. Guests were charged $150 for up to two persons for a one-hour, guided lesson with light-weight, recurve bows.

Normally, the Inns of Aurora leans heavily during the warm months on expensive weddings and special events, along with regular guests and revenue from the Aurora Inn’s restaurant and The Fargo Bar and Grill.

The Inn’s indoor programming for guests during that time of year included a host of indoor activities – yoga classes, the fitness room, tea and essential oil mixing, cooking demonstrations, etc. But indoor activities alone wouldn’t work during the pandemic. And things were looking dark, when room and event cancellations started coming in, with all demanding (and receiving) refunds on their deposits.

But in mid-April, Edinger announced to the staff there would be few, if any lay-offs and challenged workers to come up with strategies to keep the business afloat. “We had to reinvent ourselves,” she said.

Edinger took the federal Payroll Protection Program cash the Inns of Aurora received to keep staff members working (rather than paying them to stay at home) and challenged them to work on things that would get the business on a better standing during and after the pandemic.

“Instead of laying off people, we were doing house cleaning and blazing trails – literally,” she said.

The new nature trail system on the Inns of Aurora property emphasizes the natural beauty of the land and offers picturesque views of Cayuga Lake.

A big project – one that had been talked about for years– was the creation of a three-mile nature trail that Stevenson, with the assistance of Fargo employees Mike Shaw and John Bell, carved into the countryside on the 373 acres owned by Inns of Aurora.

Stevenson and his crew also built a small archery range area and a raised platform on the trail that offered a picturesque view of the lake.

“I asked them to make sure it (the trail) wasn’t too steep so that guests could snowshoe and cross country ski on it during the winter,” Edinger said, adding that the trail is open for public use and has been well-received by local residents.

Coburn said Stevenson, 48, was the key to getting the outdoors program started. Offerings included fishing off the dock, archery lessons, nature hikes, and a course in outdoors survival skills. The guided experiences cost guests on the average $150 for one or two to participate – and $40 extra for each additional member of their party.

Former Fargo Bar and Grill manager and outdoorsman Matt Stevenson has been the key to the success of the outdoor program experiences offered at the Inns of Aurora..

The son of an Onondaga County Sheriff’s deputy who grew up on Otisco Lake, Coburn said Stevenson is “the real deal” when it comes to his knowledge of wildlife, plants and a wide assortment of outdoor activities. He’s been certified by the state Department of Environmental Conservation as an outdoors guide for hiking, fishing, hunting, canoeing and camping. And he soon hopes to get his captain’s license to take out fishing charters.

“My dad was always teaching my brothers and me techniques and observation skills. He helped us understand the ways of nature,” according to Stevenson’s biography on the Inns of Aurora website.

In 2009, according to his biography, Stevenson spent a month alone out in the Alaskan wilderness, only taking “some Mountain Dew and a bunch of Ramen noodles to mix with the small game I hoped to take. I had my fishing pole, a shotgun and my camping gear.”

Among Stevenson’s strengths, Edinger said, is his ability to “meet people where they are at and to make them feel comfortable.”

Many of the guests Stevenson serves are city dwellers, who’ve never done much in the outdoors. The most popular activity, he said, has been the hour-long archery lessons, with light-weight, recurve bows. And for some couples and groups, they sign up for as many as three of the various outdoor activities.

There were a lot of firsts this summer for guests, he said. “I remember this one woman (during one of the nature hikes), who came out of the woods into a clearing. She had a huge smile on her face. She said ‘I’ve never been in a field before. Is this a field? I’ve driven by them in cars, but I never set food in one before.’ “

One of the popular outdoors experiences at the Inns of Aurora is a guided fishing off the dock session. All fishing tackle, bait and lures are supplied for the two-hour session. Cost is $150 for up to two people.

Stevenson said he always looks forward to helping guests catch their first fish off the Inn’s dock. He supplies all the fishing tackle, bait and lures. Catches have included bass, pickerel and panfish. The experience may last up to two hours, costing $150 for up to two people. Each additional person in a group is $50 and the group size is limited to six people.

“Of course, they always want a picture taken. I’ve even photographed people holding a round goby (a minnow-sized, invasive bait fish),” he said.

Coburn said this fall they added a new experience – a sunset hike on the nature trail to an eye-opening overlook. The nearly 2 ½ -hour experience includes a campfire with hot cocoa and smores as the guests enjoy the sunset. The guests then come back along the trail holding lanterns to see their way. The cost: $250 for a group of two.

“You and I might question the cost — $250 to walk up in the woods?” she said. “But I talked to our marketing people. Nobody batted an eye lash at our price. There was no push back.”

The Inns of Aurora nature trail features a raised platform with a picturesque view of Cayuga Lake.

Apart from the outdoors programming, the Inns of Aurora have some big irons in the fire for 2021, including the opening this spring of a new, multi-million dollar health spa including a series of indoor and outdoor hydro-therapy pools situated on nearby acres of farmland above the village, and the re-opening of the nearby Pumpkin Hill restaurant, which was recently purchased.

Meanwhile, the business, which traditionally down-sizes its staff going into the winter months is doing it again but plans to keep its room rates up and continue to bank on the outdoors experiences to attract guests, Edinger said. The winter offerings (once the snow and ice come) will include guided snowshoeing, cross country skiing, winter nature walks, star gazing with a telescope, winter survival skills and ice fishing.

The ice fishing experience “will take the majority of the day” and will cost $750 for up to two people. Persons must be ages 16 and older and a fishing license is required. “Winter boots and sturdy outdoor shoes and warm clothing are recommended,” according to the Inns’ website.

Coburn said at the beginning of last month the Inns of Aurora sent out an email blast about program offerings during the winter months. They immediately got several requests from downstate individuals who wanted to come up soon and go ice fishing.

“We had to explain to them that there needed to be some ice first (on the lake and nearby waterways) to do that,” she said.

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