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No Lull This Summer at Maine Luxury Inns

August 13, 2008 - KENNEBUNKPORT Dave Michnowicz's two-day getaway to this oceanside town this week was spent swimming in the pool, lounging by the fire and soaking up the relaxed atmosphere of the resort.

He and his wife opted for two nights at Hidden Pond, a new player in a segment of the state's tourism industry that caters to high-end visitors. For $595 to $695 a night, guests enjoy two-bedroom cottages in the woods near Goose Rocks Beach, breakfast in a basket outside their door, spa treatments and fresh produce from the garden.

"It's perfect, even down to the blades of grass," said Michnowicz, a television cameraman from West Hartford, Conn.

Despite the economic slowdown, it appears the segment of Maine's tourism market that caters to visitors willing to pay top dollar for luxurious living is enjoying a good season. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these businesses are doing about the same as last year, which was a particularly good year, said Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association.

"They seem to be a little more insulated in times of economic downturn -- as long as the product is top-notch," he said.

At the White Barn Inn in Kennebunk --where rates range from about $420 to $1,050 in the busy season -- occupancy is a bit down, but revenues are about the same as last year because rates are up slightly, said Stuart Barwise, the general manager. The inn has been sold out every night since the second week in July and will continue to be through the end of August, but Barwise is a little nervous about September and October.

"In the high end of the market, people are still traveling and doing their thing. They may not be doing it to the extent they were in the past," he said.

Business at the Camden Harbour Inn has been up every month compared with last year, said Jorg Ross, resident innkeeper. The inn reopened last season after a major renovation under new ownership. June bookings were up nearly 50 percent, July was up about 80 percent and August is nearly 100 percent booked, Ross said.

"If people pay between $300 and $500 for a room in August, the economy is not such a problem for those people," he said. "It's not like the people who are struggling to pay for a $70 room."

Hidden Pond isn't currently sold out, but has been "incredibly well-received," according to Tim Harrington, who owns the resort with his partner, Juan Urtubey. Harrington said proximity to Boston has helped, and the resort might be drawing guests who would have traveled farther if economic times were better.

"What's happening this year in the economy, it's unfortunate, because there are a lot of people in pain. But things are cyclical. We're in it for the long haul," Harrington said.

He and Urtubey are moving forward with plans for the resort's second phase of construction. That will involve adding 27 cottages -- geared more toward couples traveling alone -- to the current stock of 14, plus a second pool, a restaurant and a spa cottage.

Hidden Pond isn't the only high-end resort making big investments.

The Inn at the Sea in Cape Elizabeth reopened in June after a multimillion-dollar renovation that added 14 guest rooms and a spa, doubled the meeting and function space and created a more modern look while opening up views to the ocean.

The inn holds a special place in the heart of Christine Crossman of Ottawa, who owns a human resources company. She and her husband, a restaurant owner, first stayed at the inn two decades ago and have been vacationing there ever since.

"Even with the gas prices, we drove down," Crossman said while playing badminton Thursday with her 10-year-old daughter, Hailey. "We couldn't miss it."

Meta and Andy Millen of Newton, Mass., have been regular visitors for 15 years. Meta, the head of the speech and language department for Newton schools, hopes to renew her wedding vows at the inn with Andy, a program manager in a corporate information-technology department.

"It's magical," she said. "We get here, we feel totally relaxed, centered, peaceful, connected with nature."

Sara Masterson, the general manager, said the inn is having a very strong season. She noted that the rates include complimentary services. Busy season rates at the inn, which has accommodations ranging from single rooms to two-bedroom cottages, run from the mid-$300 level to $709.

"I think that travelers are always looking for a luxury property or a very comfortable property where they feel they have great value," Masterson said.

Maine's tourism industry draws largely from metropolitan areas in the Northeast --places where residents have higher incomes and are accustomed to high hotel rates without the ocean views and other amenities they might have during a trip to Maine, said Dugal, of the innkeepers association.

"They're not going to see Hidden Pond or the Inn by the Sea as an expensive vacation, let's face it," he said.

Luxury hotels are faring better than the U.S. hotel industry overall, said Robert Mandelbaum, director of research for PKF Consulting. He said luxury hotels -- a category that includes chains such as Ritz Carleton and Four Seasons -- may have fewer business travelers during economic downturns, but there are leisure travelers who have both the wealth and desire to maintain that habit.

Luxury hotels maintained 70 percent occupancy through May, compared with the overall rate of 60 percent. Occupancy for luxury hotels was down 1.6 percent, compared with 2.2 percent overall, according to Smith Travel Research.

Observers of Maine's tourism industry don't know all the demographic details about guests at the high-end accommodations. Officials at the Maine Office of Tourism do know that 46 percent of overnight visitors in Maine make $75,000 or more a year, compared with 43 percent nationally, and that 66 percent in Maine are managers or professionals, compared with 59 percent nationally.

Harold Daniel, director of the Center for Tourism Research and Outreach, said the high-end market has been growing slowly over time in Maine. Certain coastal tourist destinations, such as Bar Harbor, Camden and the Boothbay area, have a wide range of properties that include the very high end. Daniel said it appears that formula may work in the interior as well, citing a proposed ecotourism resort outside Millinocket.

In Kennebunkport, Michnowicz was wishing he could vacation longer.

He and his wife originally expected to go to Mexico or the Caribbean, but high airline prices kept them in New England. Costs were a concern for them, but Michnowicz felt the price at Hidden Pond was worth it. Especially, he said, since they easily could have spent $300 a night in town.

"It may be double the price," he said. "We feel like we get 10 times the amenities."

By ANN S. KIM, Staff Writer, Portland Press Herald, August 8, 2008


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