KENNEBUNK, Maine — Nick Wright was on a roll on March 11.
Wright, the owner of Sharper Events and Tents at 99 York Street in Kennebunk, remembers the day well. He received 18 phone calls and emails from clients seeking to book his services of providing equipment — everything from tents to tables to Bouncy Houses — for their upcoming events. He had such a banner day, in fact, that he beamed with excitement in a post on social media.
The next day, everything changed. The coronavirus pandemic took center stage in American life, commanding headlines in the wake of its spread throughout the globe. President Donald Trump led a sobering press conference at the White House, having delivered an address to the nation from the Oval Office the night before.
For Wright, business screeched to a halt. Cancellations ensued.
"We were looking at having a dynamite year," Wright said this week.
"From the 12th until now, you are the second phone call," Wright told this reporter on March 23.
Cherish Stewart owns and operates Uptown Curl, a hair salon at 7 High Street in Kennebunk. Stewart, like Wright, started to see a decrease in booking appointments on March 13. She closed her salon on March 18, roughly a week before an executive order from Gov. Janet Mills called on face-to-face businesses to do the same.
Stewart’s reason was obvious: She and her staff of seven stylists were in the business of touching heads during a time of "social distancing." People were keeping 6 feet away from each other and doing their best to avoid touching their own faces in this new battle against a virus that spreads through respiratory droplets.
Uptown Curl has a strict cancellation policy, but Stewart relaxed it in the days before she closed. She understood why clients were calling off their appointments.
"We know it was for our health and safety as well as theirs," she said.
Eric Hrubant is the president and founder of CIRE Travel, an agency that books flights for corporate clients and those seeking leisure and luxury through vacations, honeymoons and more. Hrubant has offices throughout the country. One is based in Kennebunkport. Hrubant and Amy Brueckner, the company’s chief operating officer, also pinpoint March 12 as the day their business took a turn.
Hrubant said he got his first indication of the effect the coronavirus would have on his business in mid-February, when a client canceled the flight he and his wife had booked for Tokyo in early March. According to Hrubant, the client was to run in the Tokyo Marathon but had to bow out when restrictions were put in place as to who could participate as fears of the virus grew.
"That was the first cancellation I had," Hrubant said.
Hrubant celebrated his birthday on March 4 and spent the evening with still a sense that things were going okay with the agency and with the industry in general. On March 12, he started to worry, as corporate travel, in particular, started to plummet. He relocated from New York City to his summer home in Kennebunk.
On March 19, he had to furlough half of his staff. None are from Maine.
"That was probably the worst day of my career," Hrubant said.
Hrubant celebrated his birthday on March 4 and spent the evening with still a sense that things were going OK with the agency and with the industry in general. On March 12, he started to worry, as corporate travel, in particular, started to plummet. He relocated from New York City to his summer home in Kennebunk.
Last week, on Thursday, March 19, he furloughed half of his staff. None are from Maine.
"That was probably the worst day of my career," Hrubant said.
Over at Spurling Fitness, Doug Spurling saw trouble coming early on. Spurling, who owns the fitness center at 1 Alewive Park Road in Kennebunk, is a consultant for gyms across the country, including one in Washington, one of the first states to be hit hard by the coronavirus. Spurling had an idea where the situation was headed and took steps at his center here in Maine to adapt: last week, he transformed his brick-and-mortar business into a virtual operation.
"Last week was probably the most chaotic week of my life," Spurling said this week.
In the days leading up to the transition, as some began to develop fears of venturing into public places, Spurling saw a drop-off in members who were reporting to his personal-training club.
Now those members and others can enjoy all of the club’s programs and services virtually. The center is offering virtual coach-led workouts and circuit training classes, as well as cooking and nutrition courses taught by employees from their very own kitchens. The club also has been offering virtual "happy hours," in which members can socialize through teleconferencing technology. Upon learning about the death of beloved singer Kenny Rogers last weekend, for example, the club offered a virtual gathering that attracted about 15 members who wanted to reminisce about the icon.
"We can see them. They can see us," Spurling said of the bond with clients that the center has been able to maintain, perhaps even build, in recent days.
Spurling is not the only one finding himself having to be innovative and proactive — not to mention hopeful and optimistic — during this time of pandemic panic.
Wright has seen cancellation of school- and town-related events for which he usually provides services, but in response, he is promoting what he calls "backyards," celebrations for which people need his equipment and offerings at their homes. Wright is talking about birthday bashes, wedding anniversaries, family reunions, high school graduation parties, and more.
"We really have to do a lot of backyards," Spurling said.
Stewart thought ahead, as well. Before closing, she stocked up on hair products and other supplies for when her salon reopens, "hopefully the second week of April." She said she did not want to face dealing with strapped warehouses after the crisis was over.
"We are fully restocked and ready to open when this is over," Stewart said.
Stewart said she has been overwhelmed with gratitude for the support she and her stylists have received in recent weeks. One client, for example, gave a generous tip, knowing business was slowing to a crawl and risked coming to a halt.
Stewart said she is asking her clients to be patient and flexible, for once the salon reopens, there is certain to be a backlog of bookings in the months that follow. She said her stylists are concerned about getting their clients appointments during a time frame that works for them.
Stewart said she has a request for her clients — one that she extends to other people who are clients of other salons throughout the region, as well.
"Supporting your salon, and not just your stylist, is going to be important," she said, adding that she hopes people will schedule appointments with another stylist at their salon if their preferred one is not available for an appointment right away.
Over at CIRE, Hrubant and Brueckner said they have been busy repatriating clients who have been overseas and need accommodations home. Both were confident that vacation travel will surge once this crisis passes and people want to get out and about after so much time spent keeping a social distance and self-quarantining. Hrubant said he believes Kennebunkport, in particular, will thrive as a tourist destination.
"I’m not all gloom and doom, but I know things are going to get better quickly," Hrubant said. "Local economies will do wonderfully."
CIRE is also counting on something else: "babymoons." With so many couples stuck at home, some are saying the country could see its first Baby Boom since the post-World War II era. Hrubant and Brueckner said that could lead to parents-to-be wanting to take one last trip, or "babymoon," before their families expand and increased responsibilities keep them close to home.
"My business will survive and thrive," Hrubant said. "I have no doubt about that."
In the meantime, all local businesses, including restaurants, can know that the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport-Arundel Chamber of Commerce has their backs. In her column in the York County Coast Star last week, Chamber President Laura Dolce outlined a number of ways in which local business concerns can be addressed and alleviated during this time.
"Here at the Chamber, we share those concerns and are committed to assist in any way we can to help this community be restored to the vibrant, thriving place so many love," Dolce wrote.
The chamber has issued newsletters sharing information about state and federal plans to help businesses. Another effort, "Operation Takeout," offers details about local eateries offering take-out and delivery services during this time when their dining rooms are temporarily closed. "Operation Outdoors" also offers tips on places "you can go to get fresh air but not be in a crowd," Dolce wrote. Another campaign, "Pay Now, Play Later," encourages people to buy gift certificates for local stores, restaurants, hotels and services.
"We are doing what we can to remind people to safely support local businesses at this tough time," Dolce said.
For more details, visit the chamber’s website: www.gokennebunks.com.
Spurling Fitness is also offering a 21-Day Stronger Community Challenge, which offers participants fitness and nutrition options and, better yet, the opportunity to donate any amount they can, so that the proceeds can go toward the purchase of gift certificates to local businesses.
"It’s a win-win," the center said on the challenge’s webpage. "You get healthy, and, together, we support our local community."
For more information, visit online at bit.ly/StrongerCommunityChallenge.
In her column, Dolce called for people to join together to support local businesses.
"If we want them to be there for us once life returns to normal, we need to be there for them now," she said.