Northcross: Navigating COVID Means Pulling Together

By: Tim Wood

Hangar B Eatery owner Tracy Shields, center, accepts the Chatham Chamber of Commerce award for Commuity Business of the Year from Darci Sequin, left, and Susan Dimm. AMY TAGLIAFERRI PHOTO

CHATHAM Forget Halloween. For regional tourism officials, the most frightening part of 2020 happened in the spring, when it seemed that the high season for visitors might not happen at all. But the summer season turned out to be not as bad as feared, thanks in part to cooperation between businesses and all levels of government.

That was one message Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Wendy Northcross delivered at Monday Night’s virtual annual meeting of the Chatham Chamber of Commerce and the Chatham Merchants’ Association.

“For me, the world totally changed on March 11,” she said. In Boston with other tourism officials around the region to lobby Beacon Hill for marketing dollars, Northcross instead found herself huddling with regional colleagues to devise a plan for responding to the pandemic after Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency. It was clear that any visitors would be nervous and would be traveling only short distances, if at all.

“For Cape Cod, that was OK. We could manage that,” she said. The region has always benefited from day-trippers and those who come from within driving distance. But tourism officials from other parts of the state, like Boston and Worcester – which depend on conventions, meetings and special events – braced for the worst.

“Their business models are truly about density: how many people can you get in a duck boat?” Northcross said. The Cape Cod Chamber suspended most marketing efforts, acknowledging that travel would not be possible until restrictions were lifted. Instead, it used a limited campaign of billboards to spread the postcard-like message, “With Love from Cape Cod.” It wasn’t the usual pitch for people to visit, but an expression of solidarity that also helped keep the Cape’s brand alive, she said.

Using the same idea and imagery, tourism officials from other parts of the state shared billboards and social media posts saying “With Love” from Central Massachusetts, Plymouth, the Berkshires and other parts of the state. The low-key campaign was well received, but the economic signs for the Cape were still dire. On April 9, the traffic on the Cape Cod Chamber’s web page was down 79 percent from the previous year.

“I was ready to take a header off the Sagamore Bridge,” Northcross quipped. And on Memorial Day weekend, she actually drove over that bridge to get a sense of the traffic – and found very little. “It was a very quick ride over and a very quick ride back, and it was very scary,” she said. Some beaches were all but empty that weekend.

Thankfully, restrictions on travel and other activities were able to be clarified or loosened, and the Cape began to see a surge of visitors. Managing that influx required creative thinking and new partnerships, including the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force, which brought together business leaders, elected officials and regional government to deliver consistent messages to visitors about things like beach safety.

Northcross praised Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis, who represented the town on the task force at every meeting. “We’re hearing what a great job Chatham has been doing,” finding innovative approaches to the challenges created by the pandemic, Northcross said. “Even if there’s a flare-up, you’ve been handling it very, very well,” she said.

The task force proved its worth when state officials were debating the timing of the economic reopening plan, which initially took little notice of the seasonal nature of the Cape’s economy. The task force helped strengthen the Cape’s voice in that discussion. “We said, we have a short window to make a maximum amount of money that carries people through the whole year,” Northcross said. “And they heard us.”

The Cape Cod Chamber used marketing dollars that were saved from early in the year and used them to promote “Cape Cod’s Second Summer,” which aims to boost visitor numbers through the early fall. The funds were used for billboards and for online marketing, including the hiring of several social media “influencers” like blogger Jon Miksis, a Boston millennial. Miksis wrote glowingly about his experience here, and ended up extending his stay.

“He actually wrote in his blog that he felt very safe on Cape Cod and that he was very relaxed, very safe, and he would definitely come back. And that’s why he stayed,” Northcross said.

Northcross also praised Chatham Bars Inn General Manager Gary Thulander for his leadership during the pandemic; on Monday, Thulander was elected president of the Chatham Chamber of Commerce and Merchants’ Association.

Presented by the Cape Cod Five, the annual meeting featured honors for volunteers Stephen Williams, Tommy Doane, Chris Hedetniemi and Chris Smith. Hangar B Eatery was named Community Business of the Year. Facing its own challenges during the pandemic, Hangar B worked with Monomoy Community Services to provide free meals to the agency's clients. Susan Dimm of the Merchants’ Association had special praise for the restaurant.

“They fed the kids in the town,” she said.

The choice for the Business of the Year award for 2020 was a “slam dunk,” outgoing chamber President Scott Hamilton said. Chatham Village Market remained open as an essential business, “doing it in a way that made people feel safe,” he said. It’s “not an easy thing to do in a business that has tight aisles and a lot of close personal contact at times,” Hamilton added.

Chatham Village Market co-owner Scott MacDonald thanked the chamber for the award, and praised staff and customers for adapting to the new requirements during the pandemic.

“We couldn’t have done it without everybody in town,” he said.