By Kip Tabb | Outer Banks Voice on September 18, 2020
The summer season is merging into autumn on the Outer Banks. The weather is cooling and the days are shorter. But the roads are still filled with cars bearing out of state license plates — and rental homes and hotels are at 100 percent occupancy.
“I think we’re going be one hundred percent through October. I don’t recall seeing that ever. It’s just amazing,” said Beth Midgett, Reservations Manager for Midgett Realty.
Tim Cafferty, President of Outer Banks Blue Realty, indicated that the summer had been so strong that homeowners who traditionally do not rent past the summer have kept their homes available into the fall.
“We’ve had some owners open their calendars for the first time ever, and they received bookings that they’ve never had,” he said. “So, it looks like business is going to be brisk at least through mid-October, and I think Thanksgiving and Christmas will also be busier than we’ve seen in quite some time.”
The continuing appeal of the Outer Banks during a pandemic, which led to big visitor numbers and spending once the OBX opened to visitors in mid-May, is now creating projections for an unprecedented fall tourist season.
That expectation has led, among other things, to the extension of lifeguard service on local beaches well past the traditional Labor Day cutoff. And while the live event and entertainment sectors of the economy remained virtually shuttered, restaurants—even while observing social distancing—are looking to extend their summer rebound for a few more months.
“Since Labor Day we haven’t slowed down at all…usually the business in this restaurant takes about a fifty percent drop off,” said Mike Dianna, founder of Mike Dianna’s Grill Room in Corolla. “Actually, it’s been even busier than any week in the summer this past week. It’s kind of strange.”
The seeds for what the Outer Banks is now experiencing were sown earlier in the year. When Dare and Currituck Counties reopened the Outer Banks on May 16, pent-up demand seemed to explode.
“The floodgates just opened up when the county commissioners opened the Outer Banks back up,” Bob Oakes, President of Village Realty, said. “We had our best three weeks ever with bookings after they opened.”
The so-called “shoulder seasons” have shown steady improvement for a number of years. Although Hurricane Dorian devastated Ocracoke and the southern end of Hatteras Island last September, occupancy on the northern Outer Banks continued to be very strong.
But what happened this summer pushed families to the fall when they found there was nothing available during the peak season.
“I will tell you in the history of my management experience, I think one year we sold out eight weeks. That’s always been my bar, and then it’s rare to sell out everything. This year we sold out fourteen weeks. It’s unbelievable. It had to extend into the fall,” Cafferty said.
The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau publishes monthly updates of occupancy for Dare County. For July of this year, the most recent reporting available, occupancy revenue was up 37.3% over 2019 revenue. The increase was so large that year-to-date occupancy at the end of that month was up by 3.4 percent. That’s despite losing $35.5 million in revenue for the months of March through May.
The gains have been across all areas. Earlier in the summer, upper end hotels in Dare County were lagging in occupancy compared to home rentals. That no longer seems to be the case, according to Jamie Chisolm, Director of Sales at the Hilton Garden Inn.
“The increase in the rental home market led to more demand,” she said. “The limited inventory there led to more demand for hotels that absolutely helped in recovering from the two months that we were shut down.”
That trend has continued into fall. “Right now, through September and October it’s looking very good,” Chisholm said.
Although the strength of the summer occupancy was important in creating a stronger fall season, it was not the only factor. Property managers are consistent in pointing to online instruction in schools as a significant factor.
“We’re getting a lot of folks [with children going to] virtual schools,” Village Realty’s Oakes said. “If you’re going to go to school, you might as well go to school on the beach.”
There is something else in the mix this year, Midgett observed. “It’s a different group coming to the area than before, probably twenty-five to thirty percent. You can tell by the questions you get on the phone. ‘Where do I buy my parking passes? What time is it that the umbrellas up on the beach?’ You can tell the people who have never been here.”
The most apparent effect of the surge in fall occupancy is on the Outer Banks rental homes and hotels filled with visitors. They are not, however, the only impacts.
On Sept. 2, Cape Hatteras National Seashore announced it would extend lifeguard protection on National Seashore beaches through the month. Dare County and the incorporated beach towns have also extended lifeguard service through the month.
Carolina Design’s Monica Thibodeau serves on the Duck Town Council, and she points out that it may be necessary to keep lifeguards on local beaches beyond that.
“We’re…talking about whether to go into October,” she said. “We’re making sure that we’re giving the best service we can to visitors that are here.”
Quite a number of lifeguards are college students and typically they would be back at school by now. However, 2020 is not a typical year, and with many colleges going to online classes, there is still a pool of trained lifeguards available.
There are segments of the Outer Banks economy that are lagging despite the visitor influx. Live entertainment and restaurants have been particularly affected by COVID-19 restrictions on crowd size and social distancing requirements. Entertainment continues to struggle, but for restaurants the extended season may prove to be a much-needed lifeline.
Mike Dianna, who owns Bearded Face Productions, an Outer Banks music promotion company, has his feet in both worlds. He is perhaps best known for his Mustang Music festivals in spring and fall and the Outer Banks Food Truck Showdowns. His Mustang Spring Jam was canceled earlier this year and his fall events are questionable.
“All of my large-scale fall events are canceled. I have the Food Truck Showdown on the books for the end of November, but that’s the only large event I have on my calendar for the rest of the year. Frankly, I’m not quite sure how, if we’re still in a distancing type situation, it will happen.”
But even with those concessions to COVID, if the Outer Banks continues to see occupancy levels that property managers are reporting for the next few months, 2020 may actually be a record-setting year.
Lee Nettles, Executive Director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, agrees that signs are good, but is cautious in his optimism.
“It sounds like fall could be particularly strong for us,” he said. “But a couple of years ago things were looking particularly good going into July and then we cut off power for Hatteras Island. So, I get scared when we start counting chickens.”