Convulsion In National Park Concessions

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The Village Inn at Apgar in Glacier National Park will be run by Xanterra Parks & Resorts after long being managed by Glacier Park Inc. David and Kay Scott photo

Concession operations in the national parks underwent some important changes during the last couple of years. Long-time concessionaires in two major parks failed in attempts to win contract renewals with winning bidders being companies with extensive National Park Service concession experience. Xanterra Parks & Resorts and Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts were big winners and grew ever larger in the universe of major national park concessionaires. Aramark Parks and Destinations suffered key losses in Shenandoah and Olympic national parks, while another of its other major concessions in Mesa Verde National Park is currently up for bid.

While the big have gotten bigger, there remains room for individuals and small businesses that continue to operate such smaller concessions as firewood sales, canoe rentals, fishing charters, and vending services. These types of businesses offer little incentive for the major concessionaires that consider them more of a distraction.

The increasing concentration of large concession contracts among a few companies is in part due to NPS concession prospectuses becoming increasingly complicated, thereby requiring an experienced staff to understand, evaluate, and bid on the major contracts. In addition, the National Park Service is increasingly requiring that bidders agree to invest substantial funds in improvements and new construction during the term of the contracts. This requirement stems in part from the significant amount of deferred maintenance that exists in national park facilities, but also appears to be the result of a desire of the NPS to force concessionaires (and, thereby, visitors who patronize concession facilities) to make up for declines in government funding. The recent 20-year Yellowstone National Park prospectus awarded in 2013 to Xanterra stipulated outlays of $145 million over the term of the contract.

Several major concessions, including Mesa Verde and Grand Canyon South Rim, are currently out for bid, while the Yosemite National Park prospectus will be issued in the near future. Yosemite served as Delaware North’s introduction into the national park concession business when in 1993 it was the sole bidder for the Yosemite concession that had been operated for nearly 100 years by Curry Company. Delaware North more recently received an extension on its Yosemite operation through 2014 while the NPS prepares a new prospectus. This will be a huge contract that is likely to attract the interest of a number of large hospitality firms.

With the major concession changes that have occurred, it may be worthwhile to review some of what has taken place during this past year, plus a couple of items from 2012.

Blue Ridge Parkway - Peaks of Otter Lodge, the largest of the four lodging facilities on the parkway, opened in July 2013 under new concessionaire Delaware North, which was awarded a 10-year lease in April 2013. The lodge had previously been operated by a hotel management company out of Virginia that apparently had little interest in continuing at Peaks. The parkway’s Rocky Knob Cabins continue to be operated on a short-term lease, while further south on the parkway, Bluffs Lodge has failed to open for the last several years for want of a willing concessionaire. Pisgah Inn, at the southern end of the parkway, will soon be up for a new contract on which the current long-time independent concessionaire is expected to bid.

Glacier National Park - In a real stunner (at least to us), in August 2013 Xanterra was awarded the 16-year concession contract to operate visitor facilities in Glacier. Xanterra replaces Glacier Park, Inc. (GPI), which had been the park’s prime concessionaire since 1981. The change in concessionaires was surprising in part because of the large investment required of a new concessionaire, most of which was to pay GPI for its possessory (ownership) interest in the park’s facilities. GPI continues to own and operate a motel unit inside the park at Lake McDonald along with Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier, St. Marys Lodge in St. Mary, and Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park to the north in Canada that are not in the park and are not operated as NPS concessions.

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Aramark Parks and Destinations lost the contract to concessions in Shenandoah, where Delaware North now is in charge. David and Kay Scott photo.

Kings Canyon National Park - In March 2013 Delaware North was awarded the 10-year concession contract to operate lodging, retail, and food services at Kings Canyon National Park. Delaware North has been the concessionaire at Wuksachi Lodge in neighboring Sequoia National Park since the late 1990s, so the company’s interest in the Kings Canyon operation wasn’t a surprise. The Kings Canyon commercial operation with lodges in Grant Grove and Cedar Grove was previously operated by Asilomar Management Company.

Mount Rainier National Park - Rainier Guest Services retained the concession at this Washington state park when it was awarded a 10-year contract in October 2013. Two years earlier, Guest Services was awarded a 10-year contract to operate the Stehekin lodge in Lake Chelan National Recreation Area (North Cascades National Park Complex).

Olympic National Park - In yet another surprise, Delaware North in mid-2012 was awarded the 10-year contract to operate lodging, retail, and food service at Kalaloch Lodge, one of four lodging facilities in Washington state's Olympic National Park. The surprise stemmed from the fact that it beat out existing concessionaire Aramark, which is also the concessionaire for the park’s three other lodging facilities, plus one nearby facility, Lake Quinault Lodge, on national forest land. With an extensive Olympic operation already in place it would have seemed that Aramark could have had a major leg up on its competitors.

Shenandoah National Park - Aramark, the long-time concessionaire in this Virginia park, failed in its bid to win the new 10-year Shenandoah contract that was awarded in late 2012 to Delaware North. Aramark had been the park’s main concessionaire since 1972 when, operating as ARA Services, it acquired Virginia Sky-Line Company. Like Xanterra/Yellowstone and Delaware North/Yosemite, Aramark was so closely associated with Shenandoah for such a long period that its failure to win the new contract was a real shocker.

Yellowstone National Park -- Xanterra was awarded a 20-year contract in early 2013 that allowed it to continue as the major concessionaire in America’s first national park. The award to Xanterra was not a surprise, but Yellowstone is a real plum that would likely appeal to other major concessionaires. The unusual 20-year contract length served as an offset to the huge investment requirement of nearly $135 million, most of which will be spent in the Canyon area that is to be substantially upgraded.


Thanks, David and Kay, for an update on park concessions.

What a shame about Bluffs Lodge on the Blue Ridge Parkway? It seems to be forgotten. Yes, it needs updating but the old-fashioned facilities were part of its charm.

Any word on the coffee shop at the same site?

It appears Bluffs coffeeshop will be part of the same prospectus as the lodge. In other words, they both stay closed or open together. Bluffs had always been one of our favorite stops on the parkway.

Why do I think the operator of the Pisgah Inn may have difficulity when their contract is up?

The monopolistic big-boys may find them 'a distraction', but that doesn't mean there isn't favoritism in the auxillary concessions as well:

Once again, note there were apparently no consequences for the NPS perps.

Even though concessionaire Bruce O'Connell ruffled some feathers during the government shutdown, he appears to run a good operation at Pisgah that is likely the only profitable lodging facility on the parkway.

Existing concessionaires for relatively small government contracts are often selected as "preferred offerors," meaning they are permitted to retain contracts by matching the best bid. This is standard NPS policy for its concessions. It certainly wouldn't apply to the Grand Teton lodging contract that was awarded to GTLC, but would lilkely apply to contracts such as the one for a guide service mentioned in this story. The competing firm in this case appeared to be upset that information about its bid was shared with the existing concessionaire, but that would seem to be necessary and entirely legal in the event the existing concessionaires were classified as preferred offerors.

Noticeably absent from this list is Great Smoky mtns National Park. That is until Ditmanson is officially gone and his crony concessionaire friends will have to rub their noses on the new Superintendent. Horse stables, Leconte Lodge, preferred guide services with business steered their way will no doubt continue to trip over themselves to emphasize how they perform at the leisure of the King in their court. I doubt much will change but it rarely does. Leconte will continue their concession contract as long as they do the bidding of park overlords and advance the agendas of those who sign the contracts.

Aramark, Xanterra, Delaware North and Forever Resorts are all suspect and launder money thru the Park system. They produce substandard food service with attitude and I believe the concessiions should be run by local businesses nationally. The New Mexico (Santa Fe) concessioinaire wins bids due to minority preference which in one way is favorable yet in another harmful to local businesses. to wit: Adadia National Park.

Thank goodness Glacier Park still runs the Lodge, St Marys and Prince of Wales. St Mary Lodge serves sterling cuisine!

I am sorry to hear that Delaware North is taking over the Kalaloch Lodge (and anywhere else, for that matter). The company's handling of the concessions in Yosemite is a crime -- overpriced, filthy, with poor service.

Tell me why a nice clean well-maintained and -serviced comfortable cabin, with electricity and running water, in Yellowstone costs far less than a dirty, cramped, overcrowded, no utilities tent cabin in Yosemite. If anything, Yosemite's concessions should cost less because they're not nearly so remote as Yellowstone, but no...

Delaware North is not worthy of our national parks. Period.

Megaera, interesting comment. Delaware North is a large Company, I believe still owned by the Jacobs family. They are quite influential, having been very big backers of former DOI Secretary Mr. Bruce Babbitt in both his runs for Gov. of Ariz. and his failed bid for a Presidential nomination. The issue of concessions is vary complex, I am certainly not that knowledgeable of the ins and outs of the contracts, but do have an interest in the Yosemite concession. I do feel that many of the corporate concessions charge pretty outlandish fees for rooms, lodging, etc, with marginal service and quality at best (to rent a tent now Yosemite Valley exceeds 100.00 dollars a night). The issue of remoteness, short visitation seasons. natural event closures like the Rim fire, or failure to partially fund the Feds all play into the issue (among others), is my guess. In any case, I think the Paul Berkowitz book, "The Case of the Indian Trader", outlines some of the pitfalls of large corporate concession contracts and or "non-profits". They have much political clout and they do have some talented people. My preference is the smaller family/business concessionaire you see in many smaller areas, but they appear to be a dying breed. Still see a lot of them in Forest Service areas however, particularly here in California and the Sierra Nevada.

How is the Glacier Park Company, established by the Great Northern and now a wholly owned subsidiary of ConocoPhillips, a local business?

Glacier Park, Inc. is one part of the travel group owned by Viad, an independent firm whose stock is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange. I believe the firm is headquartered in Phoenix. Viad was once part of Greyhound, the bus company that diversified many years ago into a variety of products and services. So far as we know Conoco, an energy company whose stock is also traded on the NYSE, has nothing to do with Viad or GPI.

Oops, I misread my source and Glacier Park, Inc is owned by Viad. However, I was responding to the comment about how the concession contracts should only be awarded to "local companies" and it doesn't appear to me that this company has never been locally owned.

Although Viad is in Arizona, GPI was headquartered in Columbia Falls, MT, just outside the park. I believe this is where Xanterra, new concessionaire will be building a new facility. In truth, none of the big lodge concessionaires can really be classified as local. Aramark that operates three lodges in Olympic National Park is out of Philadelphia. Xanterra, that runs the Grand Canyon, Zion, Yellowstone, and, now, Glacier, is out of Denver. Delaware North that operates Yosemite, Bryce, Shenandoah, and others is out of Buffalo. These are big diversified hospitality companies that each have a widely-scattered operations. However, they generally have local full-time administrative personnel nearby each location.

woelfelscott, You are right about the Pisgah Inn. It is always full and I can tell you breakfast there with the view from their restaurant is one of the nicest experiences you can have in the Blue Ridge but merit has little influence on NPS decisions. They can't help but be petty and vindictive against anyone or anything they see as having defied them.

I’m writing in hopes that common sense is used by NPS’s concessions division. I’m the operator who is mentioned in a posted comment on this page. I run a small guide company, Eco Tour Adventures, that operates in Grand Teton National Park and my case may provide a vivid example of why NPS has had some of its problems with its concession operations.

As many of you are likely aware, NPS recently appointed a new head of its Commercial Services division, Ben Erichsen. NPS’s Commercial Service’s division is the part of NPS that handles its concession operations. I assume that Mr. Erichsen has been appointed in part to address and correct NPS’s notorious historical problem of not being able to issue timely Prospectuses under the 1998 Concessions Act, and that NPS and Mr. Erichsen are currently evaluating why NPS has had this difficulty and how it can be more efficient going forward under his direction. NPS often complains of this chronic problem in its annual reports to the Concessions Management Advisory Board.

In my case, NPS put in a tremendous amount of work in preparing and issuing a Prospectus and then completing an extensive evaluation. This lengthy process resulted in NPS finding that my proposals were the best ones it received. Yet, NPS appears to be poised to throw all that work (and expense) and start over. After completing its review of all the proposals in response to its Prospectus, NPS told me that my proposals were definitely the best ones it received, but that, unfortunately, NPS was required under the law to give its incumbent concessioners the chance to match all of Eco Tour’s better terms. However, I told NPS that the law did not require them to do this and, when NPS continued to insist that the law did require this outcome, I brought the matter before a federal judge who formally ruled that NPS should not give the contracts to the incumbents instead of us.

Yet, despite this ruling and clarification of the law, incredibly, rather than simply award the contracts to the best offeror, me, NPS apparently is instead going to throw out all this work and prepare and issue an entirely new Prospectus. Especially given NPS’s severe budget reductions and high maintenance backlog, which NPS frequently points out when it complains of Congress giving it insufficient funds to do its job, one is only left to wonder why NPS would ever make a decision to unnecessarily waste government money by throwing out its perfectly good process and redoing an existing Prospectus and evaluation? I have not received any explanation from NPS as to why it would do this.

I would be happy to send anyone a copy of the judge’s lengthy decision if there is interest. There is link to an article about my situation in the comments to your article on the website. I would appreciate any attention anyone can bring to my situation, as I think it serves as a valuable lesson how NPS wastes its limited resources.

I thought that Aramark won the bid for Lake Crescent Lodge at Olympic, replacing Forever Resorts. So they got that, but then lost Kalaloch. So basically they're still running three.

Ecotour, this is par for the course. This is the new normal, they didn't get thier way, so they will ignore, change the rules and deceive. You've exposed the NPS waste and ignorance and now no matter what you do, you've lost...

I'll bet money their is some cronyism involved, check out the competitors, I'm sure there is a connection...

An often overlooked type of cronyism involves Congress members working behind the scenes pushing for supporters and contributors. That kind of thing can be very, very difficult to expose because they are experts at keeping it hidden.

I recently visited Yosemite and I found the Curry Village concession poorly run because of a serious lack of nightime security. Who do I contact in the NPS about a poorly run concession?

Do a FOIA request on this issue. Perhaps you will uncover some wrong doing. You have a right to see all their documents.

Do a FOIA request on this issue. Perhaps you will uncover some wrong doing. You have a right to see all their documents.