On Thanksgiving Day, skiers loaded the lifts at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort for the first time since the resort closed March 15 — an end nearly a month ahead of schedule due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Like it does most years, Thanksgiving marked the kickoff of Jackson and Wyoming’s winter tourism season. And like most other traditions, it looked different in 2020. Skiers were required to wear face coverings, lift lines came with new spacing requirements and restaurants operated at limited capacities.
The biggest engine of winter tourism in the state — JHMR reported 715,000 skier visits in 2018/19 — prepared for the season as COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths surged in Wyoming and the U.S.
Resort staff have learned many lessons in the nine months since the mountain abruptly closed, JHMR Communications Manager Anna Cole said.
Along with adapting on the fly to accommodate large crowds of summer visitors, JHMR has spent the time modifying and planning. The resort is implementing COVID safety measures at every level of winter operations, Cole said, from new skier limits on its tram to reengineered lift lines. The resort plans to be flexible, she said.
“I think the first thing we learned was, you gotta be prepared for anything, this is a very rapidly changing situation,” Cole said. Though the company strives to remain open the entire 137-day-season, she said, “if we have to close at a certain point, that’s OK. Health and safety are the first and foremost priority for our community, our guests and our staff.
“In the current climate with transmission rates being elevated in Wyoming … there is concern,” she said Nov. 18. “But we are hopeful these safety measures can ensure that we can open safely.”
JHMR is the big hitter, but its approach is shared by the smattering of smaller ski hills and snow sport lodges that dot the state.
At Hogadon Basin near Casper, the lodge will limit skiers and require masks in the rental shop. At Grand Targhee in Alta, operators are asking skiers to use their cars as base camps to avoid spending time indoors, and requiring face coverings at all times.
At Sleeping Giant Ski Area near Cody, operators are “trying to fight COVID with technology,” new owner Nick Piazza said. This includes setting up outdoor ticketing kiosks, requiring face coverings, implementing grab-and-go food options, installing outdoor seating and opening a tailgating area in the parking lot to avoid congestion in the lodge.
“We’re basically saying look, come in the lodge, buy what you want, eat if you have to, but don’t hang out,” Piazza said. “We’re just saying, ‘guys, spread out and enjoy it.’”
Piazza and his staff have made contingency plans. “Worst case scenario if we have to shut the lodge, we’re able to still operate the lifts,” he said. “I think we’re prepared for everything.”
COVID-19 contributed to a summer and fall spike in Wyoming outdoor-recreation tourism as travelers fled to the relative safety of the great outdoors. Public lands were so flooded that crowds and management issues taxed resources and overwhelmed many agencies.
But as winter arrives and temperatures drop, safely hosting visitors poses trickier challenges for destination resorts, mom-and-pop ski hills and tour operators across the state. It’s also unclear how Wyoming’s current high infection rate will impact the appetite to travel here.
Many in the industry say that, much like the summer, it’s hard to know exactly what will unfold. They do know one thing, however.
“We know there is demand for outdoor recreation this year,” Cole said. “We want to serve that need.”
Wyoming’s winter tourism is much smaller than summertime visitation, said Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism. Only about 20% of all the year’s tourism occurs in the winter, she said. And the largest inventory of activities — skiing, dog-sledding, snowmobile tours, etc. — is in the Jackson region.
“So the concentration of product … is located right there in that northwest corner of Wyoming,” Shober said.
Even at one fifth of the sector’s annual activity, however, winter visitation is a critical contributor to Wyoming’s economy. Domestic and international visitors in Wyoming spent $3.95 billion in 2019, according to the Wyoming Travel Impacts Report. The Bureau of Economic Analysis recently released statistics measuring the outdoor recreation economy for all 50 states. Wyoming’s outdoor recreation value, measured as a share of state GDP, was among the highest in the country.
Summer tourism exceeded 2020’s pandemic-lowered expectations, Shober said, though changing habits meant visitors spent less money. The industry reported being down about 30%, she said.
Looking ahead, a whole host of factors, including travel restrictions, other states’ quarantine rules or diminishing desire to vacation, could affect what happens this winter. It’s crucial to get COVID-19 under control across the U.S., Shober said.
“If we can’t flatten this curve, it’s gonna be a tough winter,” Shober said.
In Jackson, the months-long juggling act required of constantly changing health restrictions and ever-adapting safety protocols throughout a very busy summer deeply challenged business owners, said Anna Olson, president/CEO of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce.
“I think my main message here is: Businesses are feeling exhausted because of the stress of it all,” Olson said.
Winter typically brings relief; while over 3 million people visit Jackson in the summer, that number is closer to 150,000 in the winter, Olson said.
She also reported a mixed bag from the summer season. More people came to Jackson, but they spent differently and were more of “a camping crowd.” Despite that, lodging closures in nearby Yellowstone and Grand Teton National parks resulted in very high hotel occupancies, she said. On the whole, sales and lodging revenues were down, but not as much as initial projections, she said.
The travel landscape is changing rapidly, Olson said, but the desire to ski and recreate outdoors remains strong.
“That is the major draw to Jackson,” she said.
JHMR’s Cole echoed that.
“There is most definitely demand for ski vacations, and we’ve seen that across lots of different data points,” Cole said.
Resort lift tickets sold out in advance for both Thursday’s holiday opener and Friday.
The resort anticipates more regional business this year as people opt to drive, Cole said. But reservation behaviors also demonstrate the newly fickle nature of travel planning in the COVID era.
“We’re seeing a lot of bookings, and a lot of cancellations,” Cole said.
Jackson’s advanced bookings were tracking about 30% down from previous years by mid-November, Olson reported, which is in line with industry averages.
Like resort representatives across the country, Cole warns that skiing will look different this year. Double-ply face coverings are mandatory, the resort is restricting daily ticket capacity and indoor seating at restaurants, hotels and cafes is limited. The resort’s iconic tram will only carry 25 people, down from its capacity of 100. Planning ahead is more crucial than ever, Cole said.
Everyone should be ready to pivot, Olson said. “I think we are in an adapting environment again with this virus,” she said Nov. 19. “The next few weeks are going to be critical.”
National parks visitations
Few outdoor destinations in the state received as many visitors in 2020 as its national parks.
Following a summer of sky-high numbers, Yellowstone and Grand Teton both reported record visitation even in October. Yellowstone’s visits were up 110% over October of 2019, while GTNP’s were up 88%. This came despite limited overnight lodging and surges in COVID-19 infections in Wyoming and much of the region.
“I think the team did an outstanding job of keeping the park open,” Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly said.
Winter travel to the parks normally decreases dramatically. While Yellowstone sees 800,000-900,000 visitations a month in the summer, Sholly said, that number drops closer to 30,000 in months like January and February. Still, colder weather changes habits, pushing people indoors.
“There were a lot of challenges, a lot of lessons learned that we can take into our winter operation,” Sholly said of the summer. “We’ve had really good conversations with oversnow operators about: how do we safely conduct winter operations this year. I think we’ve landed on a pretty good plan.”
A lot of that entails better coordination among the park’s tour and snowcoach operators to avoid crowding at warming huts or restrooms, Sholly said, as well as trying to land on the proper capacity levels.
This season, park concessionaire Xanterra’s hotel in Mammoth Hot Springs, at the northern gateway, will be the only open lodging. All interior activity will be day use — by tours, cross-country skiers and snowshoers and a small number of permitted snowmobilers, Sholly said.
Neighboring GTNP is not scheduling ranger-led snowshoe hikes this season, but is expecting visitors to enjoy the park, according to public affairs officer Denise Germann.
“Parks provide an outdoor experience that so many people are desperately looking for and need during this pandemic,” she wrote to WyoFile in an email.
On a press call to announce his hiring, GTNP’s new superintendent Chip Jenkins said he anticipates COVID-19 to be one of the most pressing challenges of the new job.
“I think right now what we need to be doing is staying resilient and flexible as we continue to deal with the global pandemic,” he said.