The graph shows that Resort Tax was primed to surpass bed tax collections from previous years until the pandemic spread to the United States. PHOTO COURTESY VISIT BIG SKY

Anticipation of a quiet summer

MARKETING OUTLOOK SUGGESTS A DRIVE MARKET INCREASE AS OUT-OF-STATE TOURISM PLUMMETS

With visitors under a 14 day quarantine per Gov. Steve Bullock’s directive and air travel coming to a screeching halt, COVID-19 has placed tourism-dependent areas like Big Sky in uncharted territory.

As Big Sky Chamber CEO Candace Carr Strauss noted at the beginning of the recent 3rd Annual Marketing Outlook Meeting, which was held remotely, Big Sky’s bed tax collection has been the second largest in the state – behind Billings, the largest city. Further, Big Sky was on track to break its own record for bed tax collection during the winter season – before COVID-19 hit.

Cameron Sholly, Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park and Taylor Middleton, CEO of Big Sky Resort spoke during the meeting. Both the national park and the resort closed in March due to COVID-19 concerns – and both are looking to phased reopenings, with the resort making some initial steps over the next few weeks. “At what point do the economic stressors of this virus outweigh the fear of the disease?,” Sholly asked. He’s not downplaying the virus, but said eventually “we have to turn the corner.”

“As communities we need to be talking about at what point or how many cases will make us turn back and begin shutting things down again,” he said. “What we don’t want to do is go too fast.”

He said he has been hearing business owners say they would rather sacrifice April and May if it means a strong July and August. “We are going to do our best to reconcile that and balance the health concerns with the economic impacts,” he said. Middleton discussed his pride in the Big Sky community of leaders. Big Sky was fortunate to avert being a hot spot. “Maybe it was our actions and maybe it was luck. As hard as shutting down was, opening is going to be harder,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot more complicated than we think and it’s going to take a lot more time than we think. When we open, we want to get it right – we have to get it right.”

Seventy percent of summertime guests to the resort in the past have come from out of state. Difficulties and complexities emerge for companies as they consider capital investment in the form of hiring and training employees. “At some point, if our community is not totally open – by late June – we are going to lose our summer,” he said. Middleton asked for government leaders to provide some dates so the resort can decide to prepare to become fully open or to dial back spending “to save our resources so we can have a successful opening later.” He said he expects the resort will be open for the winter, “but it will be a different type of winter than we have seen before.” He expects significantly less visitation.

The Swiftcurrent lift construction is being delayed until next summer. “We are still in the ski business. We are still in the business of driving visitation to our community, but it’s different,” he said. This has been a very interesting six weeks for everyone, Sholly noted. He discussed the complex nature of the park due to its presence in three states: one percent in Idaho, three percent in Montana and 96% in Wyoming. He said he met unprecedented consensus from area leaders in all states with regard to closing. Now, divergence of opinion is occurring about whether, when and how to reopen.

There are five entrances to Yellowstone: three in Montana, two in Wyoming and a very small part of the landbase in Montana. Wyoming, with its large percentage of the park is “lifting out of state visitor restrictions, while Montana is keeping its limits. Not to mention different caseloads in the states.” Strauss observed that all eyes will be on Wyoming to see how its reopening progresses and if COVID-19 hot spots occur.

As of press time, YNP had just announced a Phase 1 reopening of Wyoming entrances beginning May 18. Meanwhile, Sholly and his team are strategizing with area health officials to figure out how to mitigate risk without putting park staff in danger. Certain outdoor areas, no matter their efforts and warnings will likely see clumps of people – Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, for example. The park does not have the staff to split people up. Sholly said visitors are going to need to be patient, respectful and responsible with the park’s reopening. Park leadership and staff will do what they can, but often in wild places, the onus of an individual's safety may often fall upon the individual.

“Open doesn't mean normal in any sense of the term. When we open it is going to be different than it is normally,” he said. It is likely to be a far quieter summer in Yellowstone – Sholly anticipates there will be no large bus tours and a 75% drop in employees due to COVID-19 housing restrictions – the need for private housing units. He wants to be cautious with the health of the workforce in mind. “The fastest thing that could shut down the park would be a massive outbreak among the employees,” he said. He said Phase 1 when the gates swing open could look this way: Road access, public restrooms, self-serve gas stations, trails and boardwalks, at least one of the clinics open. One major challenge is the park is having difficulty recruiting ER doctors and nurses who normally come to the park and work. There will be no overnight accommodations – day-use facilities only. Stores would come online slowly after that. Marina openings are naturally delayed by ice. Xanteraa has a terrific plan to open up visitor cabins. No major lodges will be open initially.

“We have an ability to start conservatively, accelerate if things are looking good, and then contract if necessary,” he said. Middleton also noted employee challenges in the form of housing and keeping them safe.

Six key points the Big Sky Resort team will be considering:

1. The resort is a business and needs to have a viable business model. “How is our community going to operate at 25% or 50%?”

2. Near-term our guest origins are going to be different. We are going to be much more heavily dependent on drive markets.

3. All businesses in the Big Sky community are going to have to operate differently with social distancing, testing, contact tracing – in so many ways. “I know a lot of businesses are working on their operating plans.”

4. Everyone will need to be flexible – because things are changing so rapidly. Middleton provided the example that the resort leadership team did not know they were going to close the resort until 18 hours before it was closed. What about hot spots?, he questioned. “Flexibility in a thousand different ways is going to be really important.”

5. The health impact, we hope it is going to be short, short in terms of a pandemic could mean 12, 18, or 24 months, he noted. “The economic impact is not going to be short,” he said. “Resort Tax data demonstrated that our community was at record breaking pace. It is certainly going to fall for the summer, it is going to fall for the winter, and it might fall for a couple of years.”

6. “We are leaders. Our community is a leader. We have got to lead with optimism. We have got to lead with intelligent decision making, viable business options, open for business, stay open for business and we have got to look out for one another.”

A recording of the meeting as well as tourism and Resort Tax data presented during the meeting can be found at bigskychamber.com

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