Saturday, July 11, 2020

Flathead asks visitors to stay away, for now

by Whitney England
Daily Inter Lake | March 31, 2020 1:00 AM

The beautiful Flathead Valley is a travel destination to many across the globe, and the local economy relies heavily on the tourism industry.

However with travel restrictions in place due to the spread of COVID-19, Kalispell and surrounding areas are seeing a substantial drop-off in travelers visiting the area. In fact, both the Kalispell and Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureaus are touting messages urging visitors to stay home at this time.

“It’s really important right now and our messaging is we want you to visit Kalispell, but not now,” Discover Kalispell Director Diane Medler said. “Plan your trip and when the time is right, travel to come and see us.”

Dylan Boyle, director of Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau, echoed similar sentiments as Medler. He explained that although tourism is a particularly important industry in the valley, the health and safety of both residents and visitors alike should come first.

“Visitation to Whitefish and to the Flathead is such a huge and integral component to our economy,” Boyle said. “With that said, our messaging right now, though, is safety first and foremost for everyone, residents and visitors.”

As the situation regarding the spread of COVID-19 is ever evolving, Boyle said they are approaching how to handle it day-by-day. The Whitefish bureau is constantly updating its homepage with the latest pandemic information from Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld as well as Gov. Steve Bullock.

Among the types of businesses that have been walloped by recent restrictions and fewer tourists, lodging properties are notably near the top of the list. Many hotels around the Flathead look like ghost towns compared to their usual business demands.

A Daily Inter Lake article last week stated The Lodge at Whitefish Lake had closed down many amenities because Its guest count had dropped so low. The Lodge Assistant Office Manager Colleen Keating said they were experiencing numerous cancellations.

In Kalispell and other surrounding areas, it is a similar scene. The My Place Hotel in Kalispell has also experienced a drop off of visitors and with every day comes more cancellations. My Place Hotel Director of Operations Holly Donald said she is even having to reimburse customers for prepackaged deals, which are bought way in advance and usually nonrefundable.

“We have had to definitely cut back hours and it just seems like throughout the week [the guest count] is getting increasingly lower and lower,” she said.

However, My Place Hotel is also an extended-stay property, meaning it has some families that are actually living there. Donald explained that has helped the hotel to remain slightly steadier than many others in the area and she believes it will keep the hotel from having to shut down entirely if it came to that. She estimated many hotels in the area are operating at 7 to 12% occupancy right now.

The worst part for Donald is the uncertainty of how long the pandemic-induced restrictions will last.

“Oh, I believe it’s already affecting our business immensely and it will continue to affect our business,” Donald said. “Unfortunately, though, we’re kind of at the place where we don’t know what’s going to happen, so we’re just kind of on standby.”

WITH LODGING properties among the hardest hit by virus restrictions, along with restaurants and bars closing or moving to takeout only, the local economy already has taken a financial hit. But it’s hard to predict a quantifiable number regarding the significant strain this pandemic will put on the valley’s economy; again, hospitality industry officials say it depends on the length of this situation.

“I’m certainly hearing that from our local businesses, particularly our lodging properties, that they are receiving significant summer cancellations,” Boyle said. “And I think that, to me, is certainly something to keep an eye on in terms of how long travel restrictions are in place.”

It shelter-at-home restrictions are lifted prior to the busy summer season, businesses should be able to recover faster.

“Thank goodness this isn’t the height of summer; it will all just depend on how long it does last, though,” Medler said.

The pandemic precautions cut the ski season short by three weeks, causing sales for tourism-related businesses to drop. But as the Flathead Valley approaches its “shoulder season,” many businesses would have already been preparing for slower business over the next couple of months. Therefore, if businesses are allowed to be fully open and get operations back on track for the summer season, the economic impacts will be significantly less than if it creeps into June and July.

“Obviously the immediate impacts are difficult…” Boyle said. “I’m certainly not downplaying what’s going on right now, but when you look at the curve of when people visit, that’s the high season and highest expenditures.”

Tourism is also an ever-flexing industry, with highs and lows. It can be impacted by so many factors and the industry is not new to having to weather a storm, so to speak. Boyle recalled recent negative impacts on local tourism revenue have been environmentally related, such as high fire seasons in recent summers. The current situation is a social impact, but he said it is most likely the largest scale economic consequence the valley’s tourism industry has had to deal with in many years.

“We’ve gone through the other (impacts) in the last 10 years with economic recession and significant fire years, but this is definitely something new,” Boyle said.

BOYLE AND Medler both said what residents can do to right now is support the businesses that are still open with limited services and hours. The bureaus are posting information on their websites regarding who is open and encouraging patrons to get takeout from their favorite places to show their support. Boyle also said Explore Whitefish is suggesting to residents, and even future visitors, to buy gift cards to their favorite places and leave supportive reviews online.

“I think something that is so special about the Whitefish community is that there is that great support locally,” Boyle said. “I’ve already seen such a groundswell of support for our local businesses, for those small businesses.”

Some tourists are still traveling to the valley and all over Montana, despite orders to stay home, due to its outdoor appeal. The mountains, lakes, hiking and fishing may still draw people here since outdoor activities that can be done alone or only with your immediate family are not restricted. But both bureaus encourage people to wait to visit, and in the meantime be planning their best vacation yet, for a future date.

“Through our social media we’ll continue to provide inspiration to those travelers from other areas that do follow us, and once the time is right, start planning your trip,” Medler said. “Think about the trails you’re going to want to hike, think about the lakes you’re going to want to paddle on and all of that will be here waiting for you when it’s the right time to travel.”

Reporter Whitney England may be reached at 758-4419 or