Summer occupancy improved after slow start, but questions remain about winter
It’s part of the Park City Chamber/Bureau’s job to anticipate the desires of people from faraway places and entice them to visit — and spend money — in and around Park City.
That’s been an especially tall task this year, when only seven months ago the Summit County health director advised tourists to stay away for a short period due to the pandemic.
But a lot has changed since mid-March, and last week, Chamber/Bureau officials reported to the Summit County Council some of the lessons they’ve learned from this summer and detailed their plans to attract visitors to the area for the economically crucial winter ski season.
“Basically, we went into this summer without a clue as to what we could expect in terms of visitation,” outgoing Chamber/Bureau President and CEO Bill Malone told the council. “We’re still trying to figure it out and learn from the nuances on there. We started very, very slow, almost from a zero position back in April.”
After a dismal beginning to the summer, Malone reported that the lodging occupancy numbers continue to improve and that the Chamber/Bureau was pursuing a mostly digital advertising campaign to entice skiers and snowboarders to the area.
Summit County Manager Tom Fisher, who is responsible for the county’s budget, has recommended the council invest in fund balances this year to be able to rely on reserves to maintain services next year without revenue levels the county is accustomed to seeing from ski season.
Malone presented data that indicated there was an 86% drop-off in paid occupancy at lodging establishments in May compared to 2019, a 74% fall in June and a 47% decline in July.
He reported the large group market, which has become a crucial source of summertime revenue, cratered this year. That includes people traveling for professional conferences or large meetings.
“Good news is, summer picked up every month,” Malone said. “… Hard to imagine we’d be celebrating an occupancy decline of only 29% in September, but I think that’s what we call the ‘new normal’ now.”
He reported interesting trends for local businesses, which he said had to adjust to slower weekdays and busier weekend traffic. And while large groups didn’t come to town, more visitors booked last-minute getaways, especially as summer continued, Malone said. That led to a 10% increase in the average daily rate that visitors paid for hotel rooms, a modest consolation offsetting the large drop in the volume of business.
Malone added that some visitors showed up without reservations, something he hadn’t seen for years.
The nightly rental market also saw its inventory shrink as second home-owners pulled their homes off of sites like AirBnB and decided to live there themselves, he said.
While the numbers didn’t look good at the beginning of any particular month, last-minute bookers often bolstered the counts as the weeks passed.
That might mean that lower economic projections for this winter might be bested by travelers who decide to visit at the last minute.
Despite late commitments, visitors aren’t taking their travel plans lightly, said Jim Powell, vice president of marketing for the Chamber/Bureau.
He said people are spending almost twice the amount of time planning their trips.
“In the level of data we have available to us now, we know if people are searching airline flights, we know if somebody has booked airline flights, we know if somebody has been researching trips,” Powell said.
Powell shared skier survey data that indicated the importance to potential visitors of information about health safety measures, the ability to cancel reservations, the health protocols in place at a destination and which activities and amenities would remain open.
He said the Chamber/Bureau was executing a $2.1 million ad campaign to entice tourists, about 93% of which would be spent on digital outlays. That represents a 25% reduction from previous years. The Chamber/Bureau decided against buying network television advertisements and opted instead to invest in ads on “connected TV” platforms like Hulu, he added.
“Those people that are receptive to travel, and interested to travel, we’re serving up our advertising to them. So, again, we’re trying to minimize any wasted impressions,” Powell said. “Not buying billboards in New York this year.”
Powell said that one thing helping early winter season numbers is that ski resorts announced their plans for how they’ll operate amid the pandemic, lending a measure of predictability to the first full ski season during the pandemic.
He said the market was particularly helped when Deer Valley Resort started allowing people to buy lift tickets for specific days, giving more information to would-be visitors about what their trip would look like.
Malone said that the tourism market has a long way to go before it hits last year’s numbers, which were on a record-setting pace before the pandemic hit in March and essentially cut the last two months from the ski season. But he said the December reservation numbers have picked up significantly in the last month and are down 22% compared to last year.
Park City suffered economically this summer compared to some mountain resort towns such as Lake Tahoe, California, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He said that was likely due in part to Park City’s lack of proximity to a national park.
But the Park City area is relatively well positioned this winter, he said.
One important factor could be the continued difficulty for Americans to travel to Canada, potentially impacting the number of trips to Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia.
Powell said he was keeping close tabs on activity at Salt Lake City International Airport, which he said is operating at about 40% capacity. Officials there planned to resume some routes to and from Mexico on Nov. 8, Powell said, potentially opening up the lucrative Mexico City market for this winter.
Malone indicated that while tourism numbers might be off this year, that didn’t necessarily spell disaster.
“If we stay safe and we do our best in adhering to common sense behavior, we can get through this season and be poised for … something that will be acceptable in terms of moving through and weathering the storm, so to speak,” Malone said.
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