Local government

Foliage season brings crowds, tangled traffic, even after summer floods

The parking lot fills up during a busy October weekend at Cold Hollow Cider Mill. Photo by Gordon Miller

by Shannon Flaherty

WATERBURY— Dan Snyder knew when he bought Cold Hollow Cider Mill in December 2022 that he’d have to manage major crowds come foliage season this year.

As September rolled into October, those crowds descended on the mill, one of Waterbury’s most iconic and heavily visited tourist stops. They came from near and far — even across the Atlantic —  to sample the cider donuts, cider slushies, and other treats. They traipsed through Cold Hollow’s aisles filled with Vermont goods.

At times, they could barely fit in the store, Snyder said. Traffic tangled coming in and out of Cold Hollow, with no clear signs marking the entrance and exit and no law enforcement directing drivers on the busy weekends. Long lines led to 40-minute waits to inch the 2.4 miles on Waterbury-Stowe Road between the Ben & Jerry’s Waterbury factory and the cider mill. Frustrated locals took to Front Porch Forum to complain about the chaos.

“It’s often a surprise to tourists,” Snyder said in late October, with peak leaf-peeping and the bulk of visitor traffic behind him. “How does a business prepare to be five to six times as busy than other parts of the year?” 

Snyder declined to provide a count or estimate of the number of visitors who came through the business but said Cold Hollow does a “large chunk” of its sales between the third week of September and third week of October.

“Business of October made up for September worries,” he said, referring to slightly lower visitor numbers in September and a general concern among Waterbury business owners that tourism across the state might slip this year. The July floods and tumultuous summer weather created uncertainty about whether leaf-peepers would come.

Instead, many Waterbury tourist operations saw plenty of traffic during the peak foliage weeks. Amid the onslaught of crowds and congestion, the season is crucial for Waterbury businesses to take in enough revenue to keep them viable for the rest of the year.

“Cold Hollow can’t survive the other months of the year, or keep the staff employed, without this season,” Snyder said.

Amy Weller works as tour logistics and marketing coordinator at the Ben & Jerry’s Waterbury ice cream factory and visitors center. She said attendees at a recent Vermont Attractions Association annual meeting learned that tourism numbers throughout the state are down overall over 2022. “This is specifically due to a rainy and wet summer, as well as the lingering impact of the flood,” Weller noted. 

But that trend turned around as summer tourism shifted to foliage season — at least from Weller’s vantage point. “We know the leaf-peeper season the last few weeks has been very, very busy and extended longer than usual,” Weller said in a recent email. “Our tour capacity was maxed-out selling all available tours for roughly 20 days in a row. The number of visitors on site at our Waterbury factory along with the Scoop Shop line as long as ever … resulted in some of the busiest days of the year in terms of sales,” she said. “We’re thankful for that and remain hopeful Vermont will get back on its feet after this challenging period.”

Staffing shortages continue to pose a challenge for tourist-related businesses, Snyder and other operators said. Getting enough workers is difficult year-round, but Snyder said he can often rely on family, friends and past employees to volunteer to help.  

Cabot Creamery, the dairy cooperative, operates a store that’s a hot tourist stop on Waterbury-Stowe Road in a plaza with Lake Champlain Chocolates, Danforth Pewter, and Smugglers’ Notch Distillery outlets. Cabot also has struggled with limited staffing, Erica Burke, general manager of Cabot retail operations, wrote in an email response to questions.

In the last few months, 50,000 people have visited the Waterbury location, and accommodating them wasn’t easy. “We certainly wish that we could be open more days to welcome more tourists and that all hinges on our ability to be fully staffed during a hectic time of the year,” Burke wrote.

City expectations in small Vermont towns

The busy season can overwhelm Vermont’s small-town infrastructure, particularly with current staffing difficulties. For visitors, that means extended waits and booked reservations at local restaurants, lodgings and attractions, business operators said. 

“Some guests have the expectations of city hotels and the convenience of cities,” said Melissa Moore, general manager of the Best Western Plus hotel in Waterbury. “Waterbury doesn’t have that kind of infrastructure.”

Just to the north in Stowe, the demand this fall for accommodations was particularly strong. At its annual fall member meeting on Oct. 26, the Stowe Area Association announced a record occupancy rate among visitor accommodation during the 2023 foliage season. The average occupancy reached 85%, which was a significant 5.5% increase from the previous year, the trade group noted in a recent news release. 

“Stowe welcomed over 8,600 guests to the visitor information center in the three-week fall foliage period, with visitors hailing from all 50 states and all major continents minus Antarctica,” the group said. It also noted that Stowe was also recently listed as fifth on a list of best places to visit in the fall in USA TODAY newspaper’s 10 Best Readers’ Choice Awards.

Given the interest, the Stowe group says it plans to create a three-year marketing plan that will among other goals “address visitor pressures” such as “dispersing visitation and economic impacts” of the busy stretches of the year such as foliage season, the group said. 

Outside of the foliage months, Waterbury business owners said they embrace the relative slowdown, allowing them to interact with the community. “It’s a large tourist attraction in the fall, but it’s local support that gets us through the rest of the year,” Snyder said of Cold Hollow.

The mill works with schools in the area, donating cider and donuts for various fall festivities. Staff know many customer names — as well as their favorite daily orders, Snyder said.

“We couldn’t survive without the community, without the good, friendly locals,” he said.

Meanwhile, Waterbury town officials are aware of some of the headaches during this fall’s busy tourism weeks. A recent addition to the Waterbury Select Board agenda’s “parking lot” of topics to get to in the future is “leaf peeper traffic.”

Shannon Flaherty reported this story on assignment from The Waterbury Roundabout. The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.

Categories: Local government