Signs foreshadow successful summer for rental market

Consumer confidence and rate of returning visitors hinges largely on state regulations and vaccine rollout.

The Island rental and business communities are gearing up for what is anticipated to be a very busy Summer.

Last April, prospective renters were wondering whether their Vineyard vacations were still a go, as Massachusetts began to shut down restaurants, lodging, and other aspects of the service and hospitality industry. 

At that point, the uncertainty created by pandemic restrictions was in full force. After state guidance became more solidified, many folks traveled to the Island to escape their city domiciles — some bought houses here, and others took on short- or long-term rentals.

Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, said she has been “hearing good things” about this upcoming season in regard to the rental market. “I’ve spoken to a couple of Realtors who said things are looking good, and their phones have been ringing steadily,” Gardella said. “Will they see the influx that last summer brought? I think they are cautiously optimistic.”

According to Gardella, how Gov. Charlie Baker proceeds with the state reopening plan and the vaccine rollout are two major factors that will “tremendously impact” all visitation rates, whether it’s the rental market or traditional lodging.

“The governor, while taking Massachusetts to stage two of phase three, is already talking about moving into phase four at the end of this month, if numbers stay good,” she said.

In phase four, indoor and outdoor stadiums, overnight camps, exhibition and convention halls, and dance floors for weddings and events would be allowed to reopen.

Attendance limits for event venues in phase four would be relaxed to accommodate up to 100 people inside and 150 outside. Private gathering limits will remain at their current levels of 25 outdoors and 10 indoors.

“That gives people confidence. When you take on the vaccine release and what the administration is hoping will come to Massachusetts, signs are definitely pointing to a pretty good summer,” Gardella said.

For businesses and rentals that rely heavily on day travelers, Gardella said, there is still some concern. 

But folks are excited to be able to visit the Vineyard in the summertime and enjoy the natural landscape, while supporting businesses, rental agencies, and Realtors as well.

“There is absolutely a feeling that people want to get out and be doing things,” she said. “Our number at the chamber is ringing off the hook; our website traffic is up double digits over last January and February.”

She noted that at that time last year, the implications of COVID were largely off the radar. 

Additionally, Gardella said, Steamship Authority numbers are up, and rental agencies are reporting promising figures as well — all factors point to a “really solid summer.”

Gardella said she is concerned about traditional lodging like hotels and inns, which were “clobbered” last year, and wonders whether visitors will continue to turn toward more long-term forms of temporary residence. “I do think people are going to continue to want that sort of extended timeframe for rentals,” she said.

For the chamber, making people feel comfortable about travelling to Martha’s Vineyard, and informing them of all the necessary precautions they should take to be safe and keep the community safe, are their main goals.

“We are doing our best to encourage folks to safely choose Martha’s Vineyard as their vacation destination,” Gardella said. “Put that mask on, and keep it on. Wear it every time you leave that house or hotel room.”

The chamber hopes that consumer confidence will return to the airline industry, and folks will travel here on flights once they feel comfortable.

For many, Gardella said, the Vineyard is “their happy place, their safe place,” and she thinks those people will return in the summer.

Because the local community has largely embraced health restrictions surrounding masks and social distancing, Gardella said, people might feel more comfortable travelling here than they do to other places in the world.

“From day one, except for a blip in the fall, Islanders embraced the safety requirements. 

Our community’s unity on this is really something that speaks to, when you live in a small community, you know your actions impact more than just yourself,” she said.

Anne Mayhew, owner and broker at Sandpiper Rentals, said bookings occurred much earlier this year than in previous years. “We have booked probably about 25 percent more leases year to date than we have in previous years,” Mayhew said.

She attributed this to the way people are looking at travel this summer, as the vaccine rollout progresses, and people begin to feel more comfortable heading to the Island.

With Martha’s Vineyard being an ideal drive-to location for those living in the New England, New York, New Jersey area, Mayhew said, travelers may be less inclined to travel abroad. “I don’t think people are quite prepared to do any European or international travel yet; I don’t think those countries have recovered enough. People are staying a little more local, but still wanting their getaway,” Mayhew said.

After experiencing unprecedented challenges last summer, and still having a successful season, Mayhew said some of the trepidation that rental agencies and owners faced at that time has been relieved.

Mayhew added that some long-term leases from last year were pushed to this season, as tenants didn’t feel comfortable traveling then. 

Christine Todd, executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association, said she is hearing from businesses and real estate agencies that they are anticipating a “very robust season.”

Looking back at last summer as a point of reference, Todd said even though many businesses and sectors of the Island economy took a hit, folks were surprised “they didn’t take as big a hit as they had anticipated.”

“Things were still very, very busy last summer,” Todd said. “As the vaccine rolls out, people are going to feel much safer traveling. It may eventually open up more room for outdoor events.”

Currently, Todd said, the town is trying to manage how to plan for big events like Harborfest and Tivoli Day, with so much uncertainty still on the horizon.

“All those things are still in flux at the moment,” she said. “I don’t want to go down the road that Beach Road Weekend did, where we set a date, pump it up, and then say, ‘Oh, we aren’t doing that.’”

But, after learning and adapting to the constant changes of an emergent pandemic last summer, Todd said, folks in the business community are feeling confident and prepared.

“People are able to look back and see how they managed under extremely challenging times last summer, and emerge from that with the hope and optimism that they can handle just about anything that gets thrown at them,” Todd said.

Simon Hunton, co-owner of the Nobnocket Inn in Vineyard Haven, said the busy season is in high demand right now, with lots of prospective summer visitors booking their stays well in advance.

Hunton said interest in summer vacations is tracking similarly to how it did two years ago, before the pandemic.

“With the vaccination rollout and things picking up the pace with reopening, we are anticipating the summer will be busy on the Island,” he said.

The shoulder season, according to Hunton, is being filled with last-minute bookings from folks traveling from places like Boston and New York, as they plan impromptu visits. 

“Things tend to fill in quickly in the shoulder season — we had a very busy February. We expect that to continue through April, May, and June,” Hunton said.

Bookings look favorable for the peak season, and Hunton said he sees those numbers only increasing. 

“Overall, we are expecting a lot of people here this summer,” he said.

At first, small hotels and inns on Martha’s Vineyard were forced to adapt to stringent state regulations regarding social distancing and sanitation with limited space and resources available. But now, after working under these state mandates for almost a year, Hunton said, those establishments, including Nobnocket, have gained the skills, knowledge, and experience in order to confidently provide a safe and enjoyable experience for guests. 

“A lot of people were pretty pleased and comfortable with the kind of steps that have been put in place in terms of cleaning protocols, leaving rooms empty for 24 hours, measures like that,” Hunton said. “I think the confidence level, even without the vaccines, is up in terms of people being kept in a safe environment and being looked after.”