Looking over a bird’s eye view of Lake Winnipesaukee and the Belknap Range from Castle in the Clouds in Moultonborough, it’s easy to feel removed from the pandemic. But even here, on a 5,200-acre estate built in 1913, the coronavirus is having a big impact.
“Every aspect of business has been impacted by the pandemic in one way or another,” said Charles Clark, executive director of the Castle Preservation Society, which runs the estate.
Normally, Castle in the Clouds is open for visitors from Memorial Day Weekend in May through October, and again for a few weekends in December. Visitors can tour the historic mansion, dine on a terrace overlooking Winnipesaukee, and ride horses through the property. The estate is also a popular wedding destination.
This year, the estate didn’t open until July. The restaurant is closed for lunch, and only open for dinner by reservation. There’s no horseback riding. Tickets are limited, and other precautions are in place that make a visit to the estate feel a bit more formal than it normally would.
“The kind of freedom we give visitors to explore the mansion really sets the Castle apart,” Clark said.
Normally, visitors purchase tickets and go on self-guided tours, during which they can explore nearly all rooms in the mansion. The ticket sales make up the greatest portion of revenue at Castle in the Clouds, about half of the money that comes in.
To protect visitors during the pandemic, the estate has started using timed tickets and has implemented a one-way path through the home that visitors need to follow. Some rooms are now off limits because they were too cramped to allow for social distancing. Masks are required for all staff and visitors.
The number of visitors is capped at half the amount that would normally be allowed, but since the Castle reopened it has yet to sell out of tickets. However, Clark is hoping for more business in August and again during foliage season at the end of September, typically the busiest times for Castle in the Clouds.
Weddings are the other big revenue source for the estate. This year there were 43 weddings on the books, about half of which have been cancelled or rescheduled. Early on during the pandemic, the Board of Directors voted to allow couples to change their date or even cancel without forfeiting their deposit. Most couples opted to reschedule for 2021 rather than host their wedding somewhere else, Clark said.
“Most of the couples really want to get married here and are willing to change their plans,” Clark said.
Since the state issues guidelines for weddings, Castle in the Clouds has started hosting some events. All ceremonies take place outdoors at the mansion normally, with reception indoors at the carriage house, where the estate’s restaurant is. This year, couples can choose to have a limited number of people, capped at 75, indoors; or, they can have an outdoor reception in a field near the estate’s pond and stables. Having expansive spaces has made the adjustment easier for the estate, but many couples are having difficulty booking event tents, because they’re being used by restaurants this year.
“That’s been an interesting supply and demand thing because of the pandemic,” Clark said.
One positive change during COVID is that staff at Castle in the Clouds had time to strengthen the estate’s online resources and social media presence. Now, visitors can get more information on history or artifacts before or after their tours.
“We’ve been talking about doing more digital programming for a really long time, and the pandemic gave us the space and forced us to move forward on that,” Clark said.
Still, with visits at less than half of what they normally are, Clark is biding his time for 2020, and hoping that by next year things will feel a bit more like business as usual at Castle in the Clouds.
"We’re pretty much resigned that the rest of 2020 will involve these changes,” he said. “There will be incremental adjustments, but I certainly don’t expect to be going back to anything resembling normal.”
This story is part of the 50 Businesses, 50 Solutions series, shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative, that aims to highlight how business leaders across the state, from mom and pop shops, to large corporations have adapted to meet the challenges and disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus in the hopes others may be able to replicate these ideas and innovations. Tell us your story here. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.