David Sheatsley, director of market research for the U.S. Travel Association, spoke to a crowded ballroom at the Montana Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Recreation at the Red Lion Inn in Kalispell, Mont., last week. He summed up 2009 succinctly: “It just sucked.”
And for 2010, he offered a PowerPoint slide depicting the challenges facing the national tourism industry. The slide read: “Looking forward to 2010 … Digging out of the hole.” On the same slide was a statue of a man, mostly buried by sand, struggling to keep his arms and head above the surface, according to the Flathead Beacon.
Point taken: The tourism industry had a rough year in 2009 and now it’s time to recover with a strong year in 2010.
If Sheatsley’s slide was dramatic and his summary of 2009 was blunt, his analysis of 2010 was optimistic, even if only cautiously so. Research through February, according to Sheatsley’s presentation, shows signs of life in the economy and an attendant uptick in travel plans.
Amy Vanderbilt, spokesperson for Glacier National Park, has reason to be optimistic. The park is celebrating its 100-year anniversary and people are already making their reservations to be part of the celebration this spring and summer.
“It’s going to be a dynamite year,” Vanderbilt said.
Bookings for hotels and activities at the park in 2010 are up 10% from last year, said Alicia Thompson, manager of sales, marketing and public relations for Glacier Park, Inc. Thompson’s company is the park’s official concessioner, in charge of sales and marketing for lodging, gift shops and food and beverage outlets. It is also involved with activities such as raft trips and tours on the park’s famous red “Jammer” buses.
Thompson gives two main reasons for the strong bookings: the park’s centennial and a general giddiness to travel again. Other tourism officials at the conference also talked about people gearing up to travel this year, sometimes more out of restlessness than economic recovery.
“They’re saying, ‘It’s been a tough couple of years, so let’s just get out,’” Thompson said.
None of this is to say that Glacier Park struggled to attract visitors last year. Park visitation was actually up significantly, topping 2 million visitors for only the third time since 1995. Thompson said traditionally national parks have fared well during recessions, as their federally mandated entry fees remain steady and affordable.
And Sheatsley said Montana’s national parks typically outpace the national average for day and overnight visits. Last year, Glacier’s overnight visitation was 15.4% above the U.S. average for national parks, and Yellowstone was 6.8% higher, according to U.S. Travel Association statistics.
Though people were coming to Glacier Park last year, they weren’t spending a lot of money. Hotels had difficulties filling rooms and restaurants couldn’t capture the hordes of visitors coming to the park. Spending was a foremost concern across the nation for the tourism industry, Sheatsley said.
Overall, people traveled less last year in the U.S., including domestic business and leisure travel, as well as international business and leisure. But the declines in spending far outweighed the declines in travel.
“It wasn’t really as much in visitation as in spending,” Sheatsley said.
But consumer confidence appears to be rising and Sheatsley expects people to spend more money on their vacations this year, a belief already reflected at the local level with Glacier Park’s strong bookings. By 2011, the U.S. Travel Association expects the tourism industry to be mostly operating at full health again.
Of all the statistics in Sheatsley’s presentation, the graph that started the most conversation in the audience was one showing that, in surveys, people said they will have more time to travel this year. Saying he couldn’t explain it, Sheatsley asked the crowd for possible explanations, and the crowd offered more than a half dozen.
Several people, all involved with the tourism industry, said the recession has altered work and school schedules, resulting in the newfound time for vacation. For example, Jan Stoddard of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce said she has heard that many government workers, fearing they were about to lose their jobs, began saving money and delaying vacations.
When these employees kept their jobs, they entered 2010 with a sunny outlook and money in the bank, not to mention saved vacation days. They’re now ready to travel, Stoddard said, and they want to do it as soon as possible. In West Yellowstone, Stoddard said, travelers are booking hotels much earlier than in years past.
“We’re coming to Yellowstone and we’re coming early,” Stoddard described as this year’s travelers’ mentality. “I’ve sacrificed, I’ve waited, now I’m going.”
Furthermore, with both employers and schools either considering or already switching to four-day weeks, tourism officials should expect more three-day “weekend warriors,” Stoddard said.
While it may take time to see if the changes in school and work schedules take effect, Thompson of Glacier Park Inc., is just happy to see positive signs already coming to the local market.
“We all were having market ulcers last year,” Thompson said. “It’s very nice to have a smile on our faces going into 2010. We’re just thrilled.”