Financial struggles hit nonprofit hotel run by workers with autism as COVID-19 slows business

Erik's Retreat is empty as the COVID-19 outbreak has dried up business for the nonprofit organization.

Many of us are trying to envision what summer will look like. Even when people are allowed to venture away from home, plenty of them won't feel comfortable going far.

Many small businesses, and at least one local non-profit, hope this will be the summer of the staycation.

Sam Fischer is often the first person guests meet at Erik’s Ranch and Retreat. The boutique hotel tucked just off Highway 62 and Xerxes is run by members, like Sam, on the autism spectrum.

He’s lived and worked here since 2014.

"Yeah, I like talking to people. I like having that social aspect of my life."

A total of 14 young adults with autism live and run things at the retreat, providing not only hotel accommodations and meals but Segway and various tours around the Twin Cities.

Kathryn Nordberg started the non-profit named after her son.

"He’s not terribly verbal," she explained. "He’s not conversationally verbal. I should say but I thought, Oh if he could lead those tours and take people on those outings, that would be a really great life for him."

But, just as work got underway to double the number of guest rooms available to 17, the pandemic changed everything.

"We’ve had no guests now whatsoever," Kathryn said.

Drying up nearly all revenue and social opportunities.

"Our members, of course, have to stay in their apartments," she added. "We are getting them out one at a time to go out to the lakes."

Keeping rooms vacant for 24 hours between guest stays, self-check-in, and various cleaning protocols have changed with COVID-19. Also, social distancing Segway and bike tours are available for anyone staying there or not.

Beyond that, $37,000 worth of donations are helping the non-profit get through the spring plus their PPP loan should cover June, July and August.

But by fall, another surge of $50,000 worth of guests, donations, or both will be needed.

"When you come stay with us, it’s not just a hotel room," Kathryn added. "You are helping a young person with their life."

Back to that normal life is what Sam can hardly wait for. "Yes, one day. I know that’s going to happen because I believe it’s going to happen."

Erik’s Ranch and Retreat has a second location in Montana. Steady business there has been paying a lot of the bills because the hotel units are much more spread out.