CODY, Wyo. — With an all-time record number of visitors to Yellowstone National Park in 2021, business owners in the East Gate entrance town of Cody saw a barn burner year for business, and they are expecting another busy season in 2022.
"We were busy from the day the gate opened. Our gate opens the first Friday in May, typically with weather permitting. So really from that day through the day the gate closed, we were really busy," said Tina Hobelheinrich, president and CEO of Cody Country Chamber of Commerce.
A total of 4.8 million people passed through Yellowstone's gates in 2021, the busiest year in the park's history. MTN News traveled to Cody in January to hear from locals about the past season and how they're preparing for this year.
Many Cody businesses felt the welcome boom of tourists in 2021 after the lockdown year of 2020. Yellowstone saw 3.8 million visitors in 2020 compared to 4 million visitors in 2019.
“It was a phenomenal year. 2020 was horrid with COVID, it really hurt a lot. We were at 40 percent," said Greg Pendley, owner of Cody Cattle Company.
On a summer night, about 300 people can pack into the dining hall for traditional western food and a high-energy country music show. Many people make it an evening and have dinner there, then finish the night with a walk to the nearby arena for the Cody Nite Rodeo.
Pendley has lived in Cody his whole life and bought the Cattle Company in 2019. He said in 2020, business was down about 60 percent. But he saw more domestic travelers from the U.S. during the past two pandemic years, and they helped make 2021 a good year for the business.
"Who knows if that will come again, but I think domestic travel was so up because of COVID and people couldn’t go to Europe and other places. They were really interested in seeing the U.S., and we’re a nice stop along the way," Pendley said.
It seems that tourists' habits have changed with COVID-19, according to Hobelheinrich. She said people are more likely to broaden their trip outside of the park with a base in Cody, spending more time exploring the town and its offerings.
"I think it definitely exceeded our expectations at how quickly the rebound would come and how in love with the West and the great outdoors that people have become," Hobelheinrich said.
The past two years have seen a boom in RV sales across the country, and it seems like a popular stop is Cody. Hobelheinrich said a spot to park an RV was tough to find without a reservation last summer, and campgrounds were already starting to fill up for the 2022 summer months by the start of the year.
“For the majority of us, if you had employees and you were able to be open, the people were here," said Monie Harrison, owner of Monie's Boutique in downtown Cody.
In retail, Monie’s Boutique had a far better 2021 compared to 2020. Harrison and her husband and co-owner, Brandon Harrison, said online sales of her ladies' clothing and western outfits helped out a lot during the pandemic. But the past two summers have been great for the store.
“Most of the time we’re asking about them when people come through the door. Where are you from? What brings you here? It seems like a lot of them wanted to know about us, how we were doing, how we were holding up. Because a lot of the people came from places that were completely closed and businesses were closing," Monie Harrison said.
Monie and her husband are the only full-time employees at the shop, so it wasn't tough for them to cover shifts and stay open for regular hours. But that wasn't the story at some Cody businesses, who had a tough time finding seasonal employees.
“For the first time, for a lot of restaurant owners locally, they had to make the tough decision to close two days a week all season long. They did that to retain staff and probably just to retain their sanity, because we struggled with workforce here tremendously. We don’t see that issue really resolving for us, because we don’t have that consistent year-round economy," Hobelheinrich said.
Many Cody businesses rely on foreign workers with visas and college students to help see them through the busy summer months. But the pandemic put a damper on international travel, making it harder for international employees to make it to Cody.
Finding seasonal housing is also a challenge. Hobelheinrich said many cheaper Cody homes have been bought up and turned into short-term rentals for Airbnb.
"We have seen a lot of lower price range homes be converted to Airbnbs year-round, which has taken a lot of inventory off the market. There’s a need. There’s a definite need, but when you’re trying to find housing for a transitional workforce, then it becomes even more challenging," Hobelheinrich said.
Park County, Wyoming, has embarked on a land-use study that Hobelheinrich said will allow the local government to better assess housing needs in the greater Cody area.
Yellowstone National Park continues to draw people to town, but they might spend more time taking in the decidedly Western atmosphere of Cody.
"Cody has become more of a destination. Not that they’re not going to see the park, but we’re finding that people are staying in town more nights and hubbing out of Cody. Going into the park and coming back. Going up to Sunlight (Basin) and coming back. Just exploring town and seeing the wild horses or doing rafting and staying in town," Pendley said.
"I think the park is still by far the draw, but Cody itself has become more of a destination, and I’m really happy and proud of the town for that."