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National Park Lodging Concessionaires Creating Their Own Stimulus Plans

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You just might be able to find a good deal on lodging at the Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park this summer. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Only a hibernating Montana grizzly could be unaware of the drumbeat of discouraging economic news. From the crash and burn of much of our banking system thanks to poor decisions by underestimating risk to the financial distress of retailers and manufacturers, including an impoverished automotive industry, the economic news has been universally grim.

Rising unemployment (although down slightly in April), a record for home foreclosures, increased personal and business bankruptcies, untenable state deficits ($21 billion and growing for California alone), and declines in economic activity are all part of a bleak economic picture.

This same song has been playing in the travel industry as businesses and families reduce spending (and, believe it or not, borrowing) while attempting to put their financial houses in order. Airlines are flying fewer passengers, rental car companies are seeing fewer customers, and hotels are facing reduced occupancy.

The Department of Commerce reported that nationwide travel spending was down an annualized 22 percent during the fourth quarter of 2008. Results from the first quarter of 2009 will be released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis on June 16. A study commissioned by Deloitte and released in mid-May indicated that nearly half the families interviewed who planned a summer vacation expected to stay in less-expensive hotels and spend less time away from home. Although the United States saw a record number of international visitors in 2008, this bright spot had turned negative by early 2009 as economic conditions deteriorated globally.

Not surprisingly, national parks are feeling the impact of the economic downturn. Yellowstone National Park reported a 13 percent decline in 2008-09 winter visitation compared to the previous year. A portion of the drop was attributed to weather, but there seems little doubt the poor economy was an important factor. That said, the park witnessed an 11 percent upswing in visitation through 2009's first five months.

Elsewhere, Grand Canyon and Yosemite national parks reported year-to-year declines in visitation through the first four months of 2009.

Concern about the economic consequences of decreased travel caused Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to announce on June 2nd that national park entrance fees would be waived during three summer weekends. At the same time, he revealed that several park concessionaires including Aramark Parks and Resorts, Forever Resorts, and Delaware North Companies would be offering various summer discounts and giveaways.

A decline in park visitation can be expected to be accompanied by an increase in national park lodging vacancies. The National Park Service reported reductions in overnight lodging for Yosemite, Sequoia, Big Bend, and Zion of 11.4 percent, 9 percent, 8.3 percent, and 25.9 percent, respectively, for the first four months of 2009. The decline wasn’t universal, however. The Grand Canyon lodges, Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley National Park, and Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park reported slight increases in stays during the same period. Still, the outlook is, at best, guarded with the approach of the prime visitation season for most parks.

In general, lodge concessionaires are finding advance reservations are down; in some cases, significantly. However, they seem to believe (or hope) that an unusually large number of families will be making last-minute travel decisions, and that overall occupancy will be better than indicated by advance reservations.

Alicia Thompson, manager of sales, marketing, and public relations for Glacier Park, Inc., indicated this is true for their lodges in Glacier National Park. Brandon Kursner, general manager of the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway, said that travelers are booking later, but the lodge is still filling on weekends and October is sold out. That said, his guests are spending less on souvenirs, something that seems to be true at nearly all the park lodges and gift shops. As an aside, the inn has started including a complimentary breakfast for its guests.

Phil Dickinson, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts’ Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch in Death Valley, agrees that people are reserving much closer to their travel dates, an unusual practice for foreign tourists who are the major factor in Death Valley’s summer visitation. Still, both Mr. Kursner and Mr. Dickinson appear relatively optimistic for the upcoming season.

In the current business climate, concessionaires are pursuing several avenues in an attempt to reduce the effects of the weak economy. In some instances businesses are combining several components in a single promotion.

* The most basic promotion is a reduction in the prices charged for rooms, meals, and activities.

This includes an effective price reduction when tossing in incentives such as free or discounted meals and activities. The disadvantage of this option is that, while it might attract families who would otherwise go elsewhere or not go anywhere at all, it also reduces revenues from travelers who would be willing to pay rack rate.

This type promotion is being tried to an extent, but it appears to be primarily aimed at specific groups or offered only during shoulder seasons when rooms are generally available anyway. Kenny Karst, public relations manager for Delaware North Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, said the concessionaire’s lodging is typically sold out during peak season and they are offering discounted packages only for the shoulder and off-season of October through March.

Back at Death Valley, Xanterra is offering seniors (age 60 and over) “longevity bonus” discounts of 10 percent, 20 percent, or 30 percent for stays in Furnace Creek Inn or Furnace Creek Ranch of one, two, and three days, respectively.

Glacier Park, Inc. partnered with other park concessionaires to offer a June Vacation Stimulus Package that combines lodging with 2-for-1 deals including golf, horseback riding, rafting, and tours in its “Jammer” buses. These packages are valid through June but had to be booked by May 22. The company also offered discounts for customers who booked air, rail, and car rentals through the Glacier Travel Center. In addition, the concessionaire announced its 2009 Sustaining Glacier’s Treasures Program for the second week in September that combines four nights at the motel unit of Lake McDonald Lodge with meals and volunteer work in cooperation with the National Park Service and the Glacier National Park Fund.

Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park is offering a You Decide package from mid-May to mid-June and from late August through late-September that gives guests who book a two-night stay a $100 resort credit that can be used for an activity such as a float trip, guided fishing trip, horseback ride, bus tour, or scenic lake cruise.

The park’s main concessionaire, Grand Teton Lodge Company, is also offering a Conservation Vacation Volunteer Package that includes a room discount at Colter Bay in return for service hours in projects such as trail maintenance, brush clearing, and cabin preservation. This package, at $120 per person per night based on double occupancy, includes three meals a day and is available September 20-26.

* A second option is to increase or redirect marketing budgets.

For example, some concessionaires may concentrate more heavily on promotions directed at local or regional markets. This alternative is more effective for concessionaires in parks such as Death Valley, Olympic, Sequoia, Shenandoah, and Yosemite that are within reasonable driving distance of major urban centers. It is also effective for smaller lodges that typically cater to locals and repeat visitors.

Bill Hecomovich of Kettle Falls Hotel, a small lodging facility in Voyageurs National Park, said that their business is quite good and he is finding that locals are spending less by staying closer to their home areas. Targeting the local or regional markets is generally less appealing for isolated destination parks such as Glacier, Big Bend, Isle Royale, and Glacier Bay where a greater commitment of time and money is required on the part of travelers.

* A third possibility is forming a consortium of affected parties.

This option offers efficiencies because an increase in business for one concessionaire is likely to result in increased business for other concessionaires or businesses in close proximity to the same park. An increase in business for Xanterra in Grand Canyon or Yellowstone will almost certainly result in increased business for Delaware North’s operation in the same park, and for businesses near park entrances.

Forever Parks and Resorts is partnering with the National Park Service, the Nevada Dept. of Wildlife, Lotus Broadcasting Company, and other concessionaires in Lake Mead National Recreation Area in a program to attract Las Vegas visitors to Lake Mead. The program includes opportunities to win trips and activities including a grand prize of a houseboat vacation on Lake Mead or Lake Mohave.

At Rock Harbor Lodge in Isle Royale National Park, Forever Resorts is offering a “Kayak Eco-Tour” that includes four nights’ lodging, meals, boat transportation to the island, and guided kayak trips. “Many of Forever Resorts operations, including those in national parks, have partnered with other concessioners and public entities to bring additional added value to visitors for staying or visiting Forever destinations,” explains Darla Cook, vice president of Forever Resorts.

* A fourth option that appears to be the choice of Aramark Parks & Destinations is the bundling of a room, meals, and activities into a discounted package made available for most of the season.

Sandy Heilman, vice president of sales and marketing, relates that the challenging economy has caused Aramark to become more aggressive. For example, Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde National Park is offering a Soaring Savings Package of a one-night stay, a half-day guided tour, and a continental breakfast for two at a price of $199. This special is offered through the summer season until October 21.

Aramark is offering a similar package at Lake Powell Resort in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area that includes two nights’ lodging, a scenic boat tour or day use of a boat, plus a daily breakfast for two. The concessionaire’s two properties in Olympic National Park – Kalaloch Lodge and Sol Duc Hot Springs -- are also bundling rooms, activities, and limited meals.

Skyland Resort in Shenandoah National Park is bundling a room, breakfast for two, and admission to Luray Caverns for $139 to $155 on most weekdays through September 2010.

New and revised promotions are possible in the event travel to the parks remains weak through the summer. If the Federal Reserve has difficulty determining what works in a rescue of the U.S. banking system, lodge concessionaires can be excused for tweaking existing promotions and trying new campaigns in an attempt attract more visitors to their properties. Unfortunately, concessionaires in parks such as Glacier, Isle Royale, and Voyageurs that are subject to short seasons have limited flexibility to offer new pricing and packages. Although it is more difficult to conduct business when the economy heads south, it is often a time when innovation occurs and much is learned. Stay tuned.

David and Kay Scott are the authors of The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges, published by Globe Pequot. Additional information about national park lodges is available at their website.

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Comments

Good God! $150-200 a night for a bare bones cabin with no amneities. That is the price of a nice hotel room for a night. Why pay such an exorbitant price?

I guess the is limited supply and the people paid that price but no way would I do so. I rather stay in the NPS lodge , many are very nice in the west or in tent which is cheap.

Actually the most I paid for a motel/hotel room is about $120 for vacation. I rather save the money for gas to travel farther or for entertainment. I paid less than a $100/night in the Florida Keys when I took my son to go snorkling and diving. We saved the money to go on the dive boats in Pennekamp and for food. The motel also had a pool which is normal so that was a nice way to cool down. The room is only for sleeping and I do not want to spend that much for sleeping quarters.

Now I have paid $125/night for a room in VT but that included the lift ticket and breakfast so I thought is was a good deal.


Actually, the 2009 rate for a cabin without a kitchen is a little less than $150 per night plus tax that adds another $15. Ten years ago these same cabins rented for $92, so they have increased in price about 55 percent over the last decade. That is about 4 percent annually. Also, consider that cabin rental includes unlimited use of the mineral pools. We have stayed at Sol Duc four or five times and I am unfamiliar with having to take a cabin that has other guests. We did have mice in our cabin at Grant Grove in Sequoia National Park, so I guess they could be considered other guests even though they weren't paying. I would call the cabins at Sol Duc "plain" but not bare bones. They are certainly nicer than some of the cabins we have stayed in at other national parks.


As someone who grew up in Port Angeles, WA, and so want my child to enjoy the Olympic National Park, and specifically for this comment, Sol Duc Hot Springs, I am outraged at the extortion that the ONP is supporting in the concessionaire Aramark. We spent many summers up there in the old cabins (gone now), my single working mother taking five kids, our one getaway. We had very little money but this was something she could do for us. Now, if I want to take my son up there to enjoy it, as of this writing, thanks to Aramark, it will cost me $200. a night for a cabin. The cabins now are bare bones, sometimes with other "guests" in them. This is outrageous. A so-called offer for 10% off one night (and more for more nights) was found to not work at all on a Monday night that was said to have a lot of availibility. I commented to Aramark but received no reply. To make it worse, ONP offers no reservation system for the nearby campgrounds which makes it impossible for anyone that works for a living to repeatedly show up hoping for a spot. Are these parks not for all of us? Why is it only rich and nonworking people get to enjoy these parks?


Very well said, Kurt !

Quite a few of the units, should be either private or run by other entities. To me, National Parks are so very special and should be well staffed and taken care of !!!
It waters down all of them with the pet projects that become National Parks. If we do not get the "National Park house" in order, we may well lose so many things that make them exceptional and in no other place in our nation.


Well said Kurt. The political spoils system is not the best way to measure actual need or effectiveness. Let's hope something new comes along to replace the clearly broken system now in place.


Rick,

I'll grant you that "each generation" deserves to add what "its members feel merit protection in perpetuity," but I fear that's not always what transpires.

The First Ladies National Historic Site? Does this merit protection in perpetuity, or was it a pet project of an Ohio congressman who put his wife in charge?

Steamtown National Historic Site? I love trains, but couldn't this be run by an NGO or even a private company? There's a world-class firearms museum at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, that would be worthy of NPS designation but I would hope Wyoming's congressional delegation doesn't introduce legislation to that effect.

Friendship Hill National Historic Site? A site dedicated to a secretary of the treasury?

Greenbelt Park? A campground whose website describes such things to do as visiting NPS sites in Washington, D.C., 13 miles away?

Out of 391 units, I would guess that there are more than the above four sites that were added to the NPS not because a generation of Americans wanted them preserved for perpetuity but rather because a member of Congress wanted an NPS unit in their home districts.

I sense at times that there is no firm measuring stick for what is added to the park system and what isn't. More so it seems to come down to how much seniority the congressperson who is introducing the measure has. It's kind of like the NFL or MLB hall of fames. Once you start letting in every placekicker or shortstop with a .250 batting average and nary a Gold Glove in sight the entire hall loses its luster.

Frankly, until Congress figures out how to properly fund the Park Service so it can manage the sites it already has, I wouldn't object to a moratorium on additional sites.

As to better efficiencies, perhaps you're right that a better word would be "effectiveness." I don't believe in farming out programs just to save money. I believe the Park Service has a strong science mission that should be invested in and used to the benefit of the entire country. I also don't believe volunteers should be behind the desk at visitor centers.

But I've also read comments on the Traveler and heard from others that money spent in the system is not always done in the name of either efficiencies or effectiveness. Shouldn't we taxpayers demand that those matters are looked into?


Kurt--

I am interested in your comment that you are in favor of "lopping off some units and looking for efficiencies from top to bottom across the system." The problem with that kind of statement is who is going to do the lopping? What you miight consider "lop-worthy" I might consider one of the real jewels of the National Park System. And again, I would like to mention that each generation of Americans adds to the National Park System what its members feel merit protetion in perpetuity. As a matter of generational equity, I believe we owe these areas the highest standards of care. And once the lopping begins, where does it stop?

No, I can't get behind that idea. Looking for efficiencies is another problem. What is wrong with the various "core mission" and "competitive sourcing" studies is that they look at the wrong problem. What we should be striving for is effectiveness. Once we achieve that, we can work of being efficient at being effective.

I lived through various reorganizations of the NPS, all designed to make us more efficient. Not one of them made us more effective. In fact, the opposite almost always happened; we became less effective. The real goals of every park are to preserve and protect resources, provide high qualiity visitor services, and to maintain effective relationships with park stakeholders. If the park staff can achieve those three goals, then that park doesn't belong on your "lop list".

Rick Smith


Kurt,

You raise many good points, and it's the next-to-the-last day of the school year, and I'm totally drained, so I probably won't address them all.

But consider that many visitors already view national parks as "nothing more than merchandise on the shelf." I've worked my share of concession-managed parks and have seen people spend more time in the lodge and tacky gift shops--buying cheap plastic crap from China--than they've spent at the Grant Tree, for instance.

With the free market--and conservation trusts--at least most of the revenue would support park operations, and shareholders or members would be rewarded for investing in parks. As it stands now, some large multinationals siphon profits away from parks, returning only a minuscule percentage for the services they receive from the federal government. We've had this conversation before, and I don't expect to convince you. I'm a squeaky wheel.

As far as cars in parks go, my thinking is constantly evolving and I'm constantly questioning my beliefs. My vision of a traffic-free, facility-free national park system resembles what Jack Turner described in The Abstract Wild and what Edward Abbey details in his polemic on industrial tourism in Desert Solitaire.

But Beamis makes a good point about how a natural and efficient balance would emerge without central planners at the helm.

That's all for now. Papers to grade.


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