Christmas lighting ceremony

People gather by the antler arch for the annual Town Square lighting ceremony the day after Thanksgiving. The November holiday turned out to be surprisingly busy for hotels in Jackson Hole.

December bookings at Jackson Hole hotels are slightly ahead of last year, so far. Christmas poses some questions and the rest of the winter doesn’t look that great, but again, so far.

Thanks to the pandemic, it’s more difficult than usual to make predictions, even about business already on the books.

Throughout the pandemic, travelers have waited to make reservations until close to their departure, and that’s not changing.

“People are still booking last minute,” said Jeremy Wildgoose, general manager at Huff House Inn and Cabins. “That’s the trend that’s continued from last summer.”

And with COVID-19 surges prompting new restrictions around the country, hoteliers see another trend: Customers changing their plans.

At The Wort Hotel, General Manager Jim Waldrop said, “My bookings have been robust for the whole month of December.”

But, he cautioned, “we have seen significant cancellations, so we don’t know where that’s all going to end up.”

Anna Olson, president and CEO of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, said Thanksgiving was surprisingly strong, and that carried over into early December.

“We saw occupancy over Thanksgiving of just over 40%, and historically we are at 20% on Thanksgiving weekend,” she said. “People did travel over Thanksgiving, not just friends and family. There was an uptick in travel all the way through the 10th of December.”

Christmas might be similar to last year, she said, but “we don’t know the impact of cancellations yet.”

Bookings for town hotels are actually stronger than for Teton Village.

“The big unknown is, because of the challenges around the country, how many will stick to their travel plans and how many will choose to defer or cancel,” Olson said.

Over the summer people were booking seven to 10 days in advance. Four to six months ahead is more typical of Christmas, at least in the past. Now it’s down to weeks.

Steve Meadows, general manager of Town Square Inns, summed up the situation for hotels: “The theme is uncertainty.”

At his properties — Elk Country Inn, Antler Inn, Cowboy Village and 49er Inn and Suites — “fall was very strong, but the whole winter is uncertain. I can’t tell you January will be great or that February will be great.”

Meadows said less stringent COVID-19 restrictions in Wyoming compared with many competing states have helped boost Jackson Hole business. But he said group bookings seem weak. And people are making or canceling reservations within two weeks of when they plan to be in town.

“That’s a very different pattern,” he said.

The Huff House’s Wildgoose said starting Dec. 26 “things look pretty strong,” but looking father out, the picture is cloudier.

“For the most part for the remainder of the winter we’re slow,” he said. He can tell by reservation patterns when spring breaks are, but “things have yet to fill in.”

“We will definitely be less consistently busy than last summer,” Wildgoose predicted.

Olson said that at the end of November, paid occupancy for January, February and March ranged from 28% down to 50% down compared with a year earlier. But again, last-minute reservations could change all that.

“We know that we have seen a very short booking window throughout COVID,” Olson said. “So while those numbers are bleak, we know bookings are coming in a shorter time frame.”

As hotels grapple with such uncertainties they’re also coping with the pressure of adhering to COVID-19 safety measures for their workers and guests.

Waldrop, for example, said the Wort’s employees remain diligent about following protocols to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“It’s difficult on the staff, but they make me proud every day,” he said. “It’s not easy and it’s tiring, but we have to do it if we want to stay open.”

Contact Jennifer Dorsey at jennifer@jhnewsandguide.com or 732-5908.

Jennifer Dorsey is chief copy editor and Business section coordinator. She worked in Washington, D.C., and Chicago before moving to the Tetons.

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