Regular guests of national park lodges have undoubtedly noticed persistent increases in room rates. Although we no longer have the receipt, it seems that we paid $225 per night during our 1996 stay in Yosemite National Park's Ahwahnee for a room that now goes for approximately $500 per night. It probably doesn’t surprise you to learn that during the past decade, lodging rates in national parks have risen faster than the Consumer Price Index. It might be surprising that rates for some lower-end park accommodations increased faster than lodging rates for high-end accommodations
These are some of the findings that jumped out when we compared national park lodging rates in effect for the just-completed 2009 high season with rates charged for the same category of rooms ten years ago.
Curiosity into how rate increases for high-end lodges such as The Ahwahnee and Grand Teton National Park’s Jenny Lake Lodge compared to more modest facilities such as Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde National Park led us to pull out some of our old data and compare them to current rate schedules.
Specifically, we matched rates charged during our 1999 national park lodging trip with those charged for an equivalent room at the same lodging facility in 2009. Keep in mind that concessionaires occasionally upgrade facilities and alter room classifications, thereby making it more difficult to compare rates over time.
We have done our best to choose similar rooms for the rate comparisons. For example, Far View Lodge did not offer upgraded Kiva rooms during our 1999 trip. Thus, we compare the rate for the current Standard rooms with the rate for the class of room we stayed in at Far View during the 1999 trip.
You also need to keep in mind that the National Park Service must approve prices charged for lodging, as well as other goods and services offered in most national parks. In general, the NPS attempts to keep in-park prices similar to those charged in gateway communities. Understandably, remodeling generally results in NPS approval of a larger-than-average rate increase compared to years when no remodeling has occurred.
Big remodeling projects in recent years include Xanterra Parks & Resorts' substantial work on Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. Paradise Inn in Mount Rainier National Park was closed for two years during which the historic structure received a new foundation and supporting walls. The Inn also got new wood flooring in the lobby and new bathrooms on the second floor. Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim lodging facilities are regularly remodeled on a rotating schedule. In any case, we have attempted to make relevant comparisons.
Lodging rates in the study are based on double occupancy for 1999 and 2009. Rates for these two seasons are utilized to calculate the overall change in lodge rates expressed as a percentage, plus the annualized rate increase during the decade. For example, a room rate that doubled during the ten-year period is the equivalent of a 100 percent overall increase, which converts to an annualized increase of slightly over 7 percent. The annualized rate is comparable to the widely-reported Consumer Price Index that is calculated and published by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Well, sort of comparable as we shall discuss shortly.
We have also included a comparison index for “lodging away from home,” a statistic compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that tracks the inflation rate for lodging in commercial hotel and motels. This statistic includes a relatively minor weighting for the cost of student housing, but is generally comparable to the rate increases listed for national park lodges.
The study certainly isn’t perfect and would not withstand academic scrutiny. For example, it uses a sample of approximately one-third of the nearly 90 national park lodges. In addition, only one room category is generally used for each lodging facility. For example, in Curry Village we include only the tent cabins, the most prevalent type of lodging here, although Curry also offers motel-type rooms plus cabins with and without a private bath.
We have pricing information available for all the lodging options but utilizing a sample requires less work. No particular methodology was used in selecting lodges for the study other than making certain that a wide range of facilities is included, and the major parks are represented.
Heavily visited parks including Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite each have three lodging facilities represented in the study. There is no reason to believe that using all the lodges rather than the sample would produce a significantly different result. Another caveat is that each lodging facility receives equal weighting. Thus, Bluffs Lodge along the Blue Ridge Parkway, with only 24 rooms, below-average room rates, and open seasonally, is weighted equally with the Ahwahnee that is open year round with 123 rooms that rent for a little over four times as much as rooms at Bluffs Lodge.
A more accurate lodge price index would take account of the number of rooms available, the price at which those rooms rent, and the length of season, and the occupancy rate. Thus, based on the amount of money travelers spend at each facility, the Ahwahnee should be weighted at nearly 50 times that of Bluffs Lodge. We might have considered doing the extra work if we had lots of time and were getting paid, but we don’t and we’re not, so we took the easy way out.
The study indicates an average annual rate increase at national park lodges during the last decade of 4.6 percent, slightly less than double the annualized increase of 2.5 percent in the Consumer Price Index and a little more than double the 2.1 percent increase for overall lodging prices as calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Keep in mind that the Consumer Price Index can be a misleading measure of inflation, in part because it includes the volatile components of food and energy. Still, the CPI offers a base from which to compare changes in lodging prices.
Somewhat surprisingly, the average annual rate increase for three high-end lodges (Ahwahnee, Furnace Creek Inn, and Jenny Lake Lodge) is 4.6 percent - exactly the same as for the entire sample. As is often the case with a small sample, a single component can produce a misleading result. Although the average rate increase for high-end properties was the same as for the overall index, the range of price increases for the three properties was quite large. In this case, an average annual increase of 6.2 percent at the Ahwahnee compares to an annual rate increase of 2.9 percent at Furnace Creek Inn.
Interestingly, we discovered that the average annual increase in price for rooms without a private bath was 5.1 percent, a higher rate of increase than for room rates for the overall sample. On the surface this is somewhat surprising in that it seems as if both the concessionaire and park superintendent would prefer to maintain some lodging at a price that is affordable by a large segment of the traveling public. As with high-end lodging, the average here was tipped by the relatively large 8.7-percent annual rate increase at Yosemite’s Curry Village tent cabins. This was the largest increase of all properties included in the overall sample. The lowest average room rate increase among all the lodges in the sample was 2.1 percent at Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde. The results of the study are presented below.
Average Annual Increase (1999-2009)
National park lodge room rates (sample of 31 properties) ........................................4.6%
High-end national park lodge room rates (3 properties) ...........................................4.6%
National park lodge room rates for facilities without a bath (5 properties) ..................5.1%
Range of annual rate increases for sample .............................................................2.1% to 8.7%
Consumer Price Index (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) ..........................................2.5%
Lodging Away from Home Index (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) ............................2.1%
Disposable personal income per capita (U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis)................4.0%
David and Kay Scott are the authors of Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Globe Pequot). They live in Valdosta, Georgia, and have traveled America’s national parks for 40 years.