County bed tax held steady in 2020 despite Covid

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 12 March 2021 at 11:01 am

Tax revenue from Airbnb locations doubled in third and fourth quarters

Photos by Tom Rivers: The Woolston family has operated Cedar Valley Lodging on Park Avenue in Waterport since 1986. Pictured from left include Irene Woolston, Dana and Lynda. They are joined by their dog, Sunny.

Orleans County lodging operators saw business take a dramatic drop a year ago in March when Gov. Andrew Cuomo put New York on “Pause.” That order closed many businesses temporarily, and urged people to stay home for nonessential travel.

The local lodging operators saw many cancellations and few bookings from March through June. But then business really started to pick up, especially for smaller operators with only a few rooms. That appealed to families looking to get away but not wanting to be around too many people during a pandemic.

File photo by Tom Rivers: Andrew Meier is shown at the check-in desk for the Hart Hotel in Medina. Corporate clients were down last year, but the site attracted new customers from Western New York who went on “stay-cations.”

The numbers show that overall the county didn’t see a drop in the bed tax, the 4 percent tax charged for people who stay in hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, lodges and 68 rentals in the county through Airbnb.

The total bed tax collected for 2020 was $58,438.45. That is about 100 dollars more than the $58,424.31 in 2019, according to data from Kim DeFrank, the county treasurer.

“Initially we had many cancellations and refunds and that was painful,” said Andrew Meier, owner of the Hart House Hotel in downtown Medina, which has eight rooms available.

“But then business picked up and we saw a shift in guests. There was less corporate and faraway visitors to more stay-cationers.”

Meier said the Hart House saw more customers the second half of the year who were from Western New York. People looking for a change of scenario and short getaway after being confined to their residences, especially with schools shifting to on-line learning and more parents working from home.

Laura and John Olinger opened a cottage and guest house at the Bridges last year, next to Narby’s on the Oak Orchard River. The Olingers worked about a year getting the places ready, and thought the timing was bad when they opened the cottage in May. They book customers through Airbnb.

“After Covid hit we didn’t think we would get much business but we were booked solid,” Mrs. Olinger said.

Nearly all of the guests we within driving distance. Many spent the weekend in the area and went to Niagara Falls or they visited wineries. Many just wanted a break from their daily routine.

File photo by Tom Rivers: Joan Page opened the Bell Tower Lodge in 2015 at the former Kenyonville United Methodist Church. The site on Oak Orchard River Road has five rooms for rent.

“It’s been people from Rochester and Buffalo, and some from New York City,” Olinger said. “We had people close by from Middleport and Holley. They just wanted to get away for the night because of Covid.”

The Olingers are adding a house boat that can be rented and they are putting in new floating docks.

The bed tax had its biggest gains in Airbnb rentals, with the second half of 2020 doubling the bed tax revenue from the same time in 2019, said DeFrank, the county treasurer.

Joan Page owns the five-unit Bell Tower Lodge, the former Kenyonville United Methodist Church. She opened it in 2015 following three years of renovations.

She does most of her bookings through Airbnb. Her bookings “tanked” in the spring due to Covid, with the restrictions and health concerns. She said she lost $8,400 in cancelations. She was worried but then in the summer and fall she was busy.

“I had a lot of families who were basically losing their minds and needed a getaway,” Page said.

The site appealed to customers too because there are only five rooms and only a few other customers. That eased their concerns about being around lots of other people during a pandemic.

“We were appealing because we’re not 40 rooms,” she said. “Having fewer rooms proved advantageous.”

Page and other operators all said they intensified their cleaning in between customers.

Page said her revenue which recovered later in the year was still down from 2019. She said she already has several bookings this spring and summer. She is pleased to see more people in the region looking for a vacation in the rural areas, and not necessarily going to resorts or the glamour of a city for a getaway.

“I always thought that our little area is an undiscovered heaven,” Page said.

Dana Woolston said Cedar Valley, which overlooks Oak Orchard River, is a popular getaway for fishermen and people who want a break from the hustle and bustle.

Dana Woolston operates Cedar Valley Lodging on Park Avenue in Waterport. The five lodges overlook the Oak Orchard River and has repeat customers going back 30 years. Many are fishermen.

Cedar Valley took a hit last spring and summer. New York’s travel restrictions, requiring many out-of-state visitors to quarantine for 2 weeks once in New York, kept many of the Woolston’s long-time customers away.

Dana Woolston put in new hardwood floors, fans, lights and made other improvements during some downtime at the lodging business last year.

“We had some cancellations because people were afraid once they got here they would get fined,” Woolston said.

With weddings capped at 50 people by the state for much of 2020, Woolston said there were a couple cancelations at Cedar Valley for wedding parties.

He said the overall revenue was down about a third in 2020, but did pick up in the second half of the year.

Cedar Valley saw some new faces last year, with families looking for an escape. Woolston also sees a growing clientele in drivers for local Amish. Some of those drivers are helping Amish relocate from Pennsylvania or Ohio to Orleans County where real estate is less costly.

Woolston’s parents, Glenn and Irene, started Cedar Valley in 1986. Dana has remodeled the five sites, putting in new hardwoods floors that he said are easier to clean. There are new fans, lights and other upgrades.

“Most of our customers come from word of mouth,” he said. They come for the secluded lodging along the Oak Orchard River. When you come down here you are in a different world.”

The motel tax has been on the rise in Orleans County in recent years. Prior to the $58,438 in 2020 and $58,424 in 2019, the motel tax generated $51,002 in 2018. In 2017, the bed tax generated $45,374. The county uses the funds for tourism promotion.