The surprisingly busy summer outdoor tourism business around Jackson Hole looks as if it will continue into winter, according to the people who need visitors to survive.
When the COVID-19 pandemic showed its first slight signs in Jackson this past March the opinion among businesspeople was that the bottom line for summer would be dreadful. But a combination of factors — relatively little coronavirus here, a frantic urge of people to travel after being locked in — resulted in a strong season.
Skinny Skis co-owner Scott O’Brien said what many did, that “business this summer for us was far greater than we expected in April, when we expected it to be down significantly ... but we had excellent business.”
And despite worries about COVID-19 elsewhere, it seems business here will escape the worst, and might even prosper this winter. Starting now.
“Judging by our phone calls, mid- to late November is going to probably going to be the busiest November I’ve ever seen,” Justin Walters, the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce’s lead visitor services agent, said last week during a “winter operations” webinar. “And I’ve been doing this type of work for 16 years, mostly with the Chamber of Commerce.”
The virus puts an ever-present question mark over everything.
“This could change tomorrow,” Walters said as he went through a list of winter activities providers. “That’s one thing we learned here at Visitor Services this summer is we may tell you one thing one day and it changes as soon as we get off the phone.”
That aside, businesses contacted by the News&Guide painted an upbeat picture.
At Jackson Hole Vintage Adventures, Adam Gottschling said he is “very optimistic about winter,” and at Scenic Safaris, Caroline Meerman said that “we are not having anybody cancel because of COVID right now.”
“The people I’m talking to on the phone are incredibly stressed and wanting to go somewhere,” said Frank Teasley, owner of Jackson Hole Iditarod Sled Dog Tours, which takes people to Granite Hot Springs. “I think it will be similar to what happened in Jackson this summer.”
Teasley said tours are booked for Christmas and the New Year’s holiday and into mid-January — about what is usual, he said.
Reservations are “blowing away” what he’s seen in the past, said Gottschling at Jackson Hole Vintage Adventures, whose offerings include sleigh rides followed by dinner in a heated tent.
“There are days that are unavailable in December already,” he said. “We are also opening about 12 days earlier than we’re used to just because of the influx of interest we’ve been getting.”
Cathy Shill, who started Hole Hiking Experience 31 years ago, said she had “a crazy October and will have a crazy Thanksgiving.”
Gottschling said planned safety measures at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Targhee and Snow King Mountain Resort — fewer people, more space between them — might even boost businesses like his, those that deal in smaller groups, often in the great outdoors rather than on a crowded ski hill.
“With Jackson Hole Mountain Resort capping the amount of skiers,” he said, “there are going to be a lot of people looking at alternative activities.”
Cody Downard, who operates the Teton Pines Nordic Center, said the cross-country ski industry is anticipating a 30% increase in newcomers to the sport this winter.
As for the Pines’ own groomed trails, “I think we are looking at a busier winter for locals and second-home owners,” he said Friday.
The Nordic Center typically sees a lot of tourists, but this year “that’s yet to be determined depending on where we are with COVID,” he said. “December is a long way from Nov. 13.”
Meerman, at Scenic Safaris, a snowmobile and snow coach tour company, said that she’s seen interest for months in booking for winter and that “we still have a very steady flow of calls.”
Doing things differently
There have been some changes among customers and in the reaction of the businesses in response:
• Meerman said Scenic Safaris has cut back the number of trips it’s offering. It’s also working to keep people protected from potential infection: That means, for example, dividers between snow coach drivers and passengers so the customers can take off their masks. The company’s tours are being sold only to groups of family and friends. “We’re doing private trips in groups that are traveling together only,” she said.
• Jackson Hole Vintage Adventures is booking only households this season, refusing corporate groups, which have been a small part of the business anyway. Gottschling, who manages the business with his wife, Cristina, said they are dropping shuttle service, instead meeting customers at the Stilson lot and leading them to the site.
• Dog musher Teasley said he has had company groups cancel for the year but that it hasn’t been a big hit. He’s invested in masks and may buy some bench heaters. He said the nature of his business — lots of dogs on staff — means he’s kept his 30-day cancellation policy if people change their minds. No money back for those who back out too late for him to replace them: “I can’t operate like that, I have too many mouths to feed,” he said. “The dogs have to eat whether anybody comes or not.”
• The Teton Pines Nordic Center has moved downstairs at the Pines’ club. People will be able to buy passes online or over the phone, and instead of walking inside to check in they will do so via intercom at a window. Downard said he has bumped up his hard-goods orders.
“We’re anticipating new skiers. … how many I don’t know,” Downard said.
• Chamber services will change a bit this winter. At the airport, in lieu of handing out the traditional complimentary mimosas, greeters will welcome arriving visitors with Stay Wild bags containing hand sanitizer, maps and information.
Walters also noted during the webinar that there’s no date for reopening the visitor center on North Cache, which has been closed since March. National Elk Refuge sleigh rides will be serviced from a trailer in the parking lot there. Sleigh riders will be asked to bring their own blankets.
Outdoor businesses in the area have benefited from the eagerness of people in coronavirus-hit areas to get away and outside, people agreed.
“People are seeking solace in nature and here that’s top of the list,” said Shill, the hiking group leader. As she prepares to switch to snowshoe and cross-country skiing tours, she also noted the virus that has kept foreigners from visiting the U.S. has also kept Americans from going overseas, and “when people cannot travel outside the U.S. things get pretty busy for us.”
She noted, with others, that the summer rush to be outdoors was partly tourists, but not all. She ran into a throng during an October visit to Munger Mountain, a place where locals certainly outnumber visitors.
“There was like 50 cars, the parking lot was full,” Shill said. “People were parked on Fish Creek Road.”
Get your gear now
During the chamber’s webinar Nancy Leon of the Jackson Hole Nordic Alliance said some retail shops are seeing a surge in winter gear sales. At the same time inventory for things like cross-country skis and fat bikes is limited.
“If you are interested in getting out and you either need to buy gear, if you’re interested in demo’ing or renting gear, we really encourage you to get yourself equipped now,” Leon said.
Same for Skinny Skis. Co-owner O’Brien said it’s the same problem bike sellers had this summer, with his shop “starting to burn through inventory very quickly” and an anticipation that it will be “tricky to source within the next month.” O’Brien said that he’ll have plenty of rental gear as a cushion and that he’s taking orders for gear to be delivered when it’s available.
At Hoff’s Bikesmith manager Bryce Carroll anticipates an uptick in fat bike sales and rentals like what bike shops saw during the summer.
This winter “we’re going to see the same aspect as people are trying to get outside and get their exercise and not be cooped up in a gym.”
Hoff’s has stocked up on fat bikes as best it could, he said, but didn’t get as big a supply as it wanted. There have been choke points throughout the supply chain, he said.
“In every aspect of the entire ‘build a bike, ship the bike, get the bike’ we’ve seen delays,” he said.
People tend to shop for fat bikes after they’ve bought their skis and had their boots fitted and then hit a day when the skiing isn’t so good.
This year that surge will be “a lot larger due to COVID,” he said.
That Jackson Hole’s virus rates have been relatively low has added to the area’s attraction, but that wasn’t just chance, Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris owner Williams said. He credited the decision at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to shut down in March, quickly followed by most other rec businesses, for playing a role in preventing an early outbreak here and easing the way to a strong summer. He said the Teton County Health Department and the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce also acted rapidly in the closing and the subsequent phased reopening and the emphasis on safety and prevention.
Williams said he let people cancel reservations if they felt sick and also decided right away not to take on certain groups — one example, he said, was a “no family reunions” rule.
“We knew COVID was spreading in those kinds of gatherings,” he said. “And we thought that if people in July and August were willing to do something like that they weren’t that concerned ... the people who didn’t buy into being realistic were extremely high risk.”
He also gave his employees authority in squashing anyone’s disregard for safety rules and backed them through several clashes with people from the “I’m not wearing a mask” part of the population.
“We told those people, ‘It’s the law, it’s just the way it’s going to be, you’re going to wear a mask,’” he said.
Williams credited government and businesses for cooperating on prevention, saying it “no doubt that helped us have a strong summer, and saved lives.”