You’ve heard it before. If you build it, they will come. Well, that doesn’t seem to be working out for tourism businesses in Gardiner so far this winter. According to a half dozen business owners we spoke with, the first month of the winter season wasn’t as strong as business owners wanted.
“It’s definitely been a kind of slow, rough winter,” said Terese Petcoff the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce Executive Director.
Others echoed that. Nathan Varley Ph.D. the owner of Yellowstone Wolf Tracker said, “Business is a little light.”
“The holidays were less busy,” said Cara McGary, owner of In Our Nature Guiding Service. While Emil McCain who owns Yellowstone Wild put a number on it. He said, “Our winter bookings are down by about forty percent.”
While Mike Keller, the General Manager of Yellowstone National Park Lodges described life this season in Mammoth with the big hotel closed. He said, “We have a lot of wildlife in the Mammoth area this winter. I think part of it is because there just aren’t as many people around.”
When massive flooding last June 13th wiped out roads in the northern part of Yellowstone National Park, it also wiped out the summer business prospects for hotels, restaurants tour guides, and more in the gateway community of Gardiner. Thanks to a major effort by park managers, the North Entrance road was rebuilt and park access was reopened at the end of October. Local guides and other business people said they were hoping for a strong winter to offset losses from the entrance being closed for five months. That has not happened yet. But some businesses are not suffering at all.
Clay Willis at the Absoarka Inn said, “It’s going surprisingly well, especially since Mammoth Hotel didn’t open up, so that helps funnel a lot of the business down to us, so we’re having as good of a winter as we can.”
But that’s the exception to the rule. McCain said he has lowered rates up to 40 percent this winter and is still suffering from slow bookings. He added, “This is the first season that I have spent considerable money advertising and promoting my tour business. In past years I have not had to do that. I started this business in 2017 and just through word of mouth, returning guests, guests visiting with their friends and neighbors and co-workers, that kind of word of mouth kept me in business and allowed me to grow my business.”
Park Superintendent Cam Sholly said the park is now fully open for winter activities but admits visitation is a little slow. At the same time he praised business people for working with the park to get it back in business. He said, “Everybody’s done a really good job of being flexible and rolling with this because there’s no, I’ve said, there’s no playbook to what’s happened here.”
Cara McGary noted that visitors who are coming to the park are acting a bit differently than in the past. She said, “There are fewer people, but they’re coming for a little bit longer. Overall I would say it’s probably similar but maybe a little slower than last year, and people are just now, that we’re into January, they’re starting to make their bookings for next summer, as opposed to doing it late, late in the year.”
Varley said of this winter’s visitors, “A lot of the people have been wanting to come to Yellowstone for years and they finally say, well this is my chance, I’ll go now. And, everyone’s pretty happy when they get here.”
No one has a complete handle on why visitors are not rushing back for the winter season, but there are some ideas. McCary said, “This year, a lot of people were really confused about whether or not the road had opened to the general public.”
“I think people are sort of starting to understand that. I think there’s still a little confusion from some people, but yeah, the road is open, it’s been open all winter,” said David Bent at Hillcrest Cottages.
Other business owners said concerns about the economy, higher airfares, and many canceled flights during the holidays also contributed to the slow start this season. Part of the battle is perception.
“Everybody got inundated with the news of the flood, the images of the roads washed away. But that same kind of attention has not been given to the creation of the new road,” said McCain.
At the same time, everyone seemed optimistic about the coming summer.
“Advance reservations for next summer are excellent. We have strong interest in Yellowstone again. We expect visitation to be normal,” said Mike Keller. While McCain added, “Next summer our bookings are actually up a little bit from what they were this time last year.”
And Varley observed, “The power of Yellowstone to draw people hasn’t dissipated.”
That hope for the coming summer has Terese Petcoff at the Chamber of Commerce optimistic. She predicted, “I’m expecting it to be back to normal and hopefully gangbusters come July and June and I hope that businesses are surprised.”
Extended Q&A interviews: