Hoteliers with properties located inside U.S. national parks report continuing high demand during the National Park Service’s centennial celebration, but the demographics of their guests are skewing younger.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—In celebration of its 100th year, the U.S. National Park Service has increased its promotion efforts to the traveling public, hoping to introduce the parks to new guests and bring back past visitors. But with a high level of existing demand during their peak season and limited supply physically in the parks, hotels may not be poised to take advantage of the spike in visitors.
Occupancy is already high
Because of the El Tovar Hotel’s ambiance and location to the rim of the Grand Canyon, the property normally has a high occupancy rate throughout the year, said Jon Streit, GM of Grand Canyon National Park Lodges, which is part of Xanterra Parks & Resorts. While the national park centennial celebration has increased daily visitation, he said, occupancy tends to be pretty consistent.
It’s normal for travelers to book about 13 months ahead during peak summer season, Streit said, with less time needed during the shoulder months in autumn and winter. With the centennial this year, his company anticipates increased visitation through the fall and winter.
Bruce O’Connell, owner of the Pisgah Inn in the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina, said his 51-room property would likely be at capacity even without circumstances driving up interest.
“We’re as busy this year as we are every year,” he said. “I can’t say it’s because of the centennial or because of the cheap price of fuel.”
While O’Connell and his employees are excited about the 100-year anniversary and are pleased to celebrate it, he said he can’t directly attribute any of business at the Pisgah Inn to the anniversary. The property can accept bookings a year ahead, he said, and it stays almost full all of the time, including during autumn when the leaves turn.
“When we’re full, it’s hard to tell when there’s extra business because we have to turn people away,” O’Connell said.
Operating as always
Staffing is limited by the amount of housing available for employees, Streit said, and Xanterra provides accommodations for almost all employees. The company will reduce the hours of operation at the hotel based on visitation levels, Streit said, and there are lower staffing levels once demand slows down from November through February.
“We’re very busy during these peak periods,” he said. “Where that could affect staffing is being able to keep it at higher staffing level longer into the year depending on how visitation goes on shoulder periods.”
The 33-room Volcano House, located in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the island of Hawaii, is accustomed to high occupancies, GM Mauro Aguilar said via email. A new active lava flow has generated higher booking demand and occupancy from locals and mainlanders, he said, and he hopes the exposure from the centennial will turn into more bookings in the future.
Because high occupancy is a normal occurrence, day-to-day operations haven’t changed much for the centennial, Aguilar said, although the property has partnered with the National Park Service to share information and promote centennial activities with guests. One example is the hotel displayed on property 13 colorful art quilts created by a group of textile artists from Nebraska’s Lincoln-Omaha area to celebrate the anniversary, he said.
Changing visitor demographics
Hotel accommodations within national park locations might be sold out as usual, but hoteliers are seeing shifts in the types of travelers who are visiting the national parks, sources said.
Betsy O’Rourke, VP of sales and marketing at Xanterra, said guests who stay at Xanterra properties within the parks—which includes Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, Death Valley National Park, Crater Lake National Park, Zion National Park and Grand Canyon National Park—only make up about 10% of total visitors to the parks.
“The 18- to 30-year-old age group has more than tripled,” she said. “It’s still the smallest percentage, but it more than tripled. It went from 3.2% in 2010 to almost 10%—9.87% in 2016.”
O’Rourke said the number of international guests grew about 1% across the six parks from 2010 to 2016.
“The 31- to 55-year-old group, which is what we would consider, primarily, our family group, actually grew from 44% to 52.4%, which makes sense to us,” she said. “And the 55 (and up) group actually shrank from 52.7% to 37.7%. So what you’re seeing is a younger population actually going into the parks now over the last five years.”
Clark Davis, director of sales & marketing at Furnace Creek Resort at Death Valley National Park, said he’s noticed more millennial travelers are starting to visit the park and stay at the Furnace Creek Ranch, which is more family-friendly, according to Davis. The Furnace Creek Resort is made up of two hotels: The Furnace Creek Inn and the Furnace Creek Ranch.
“It’s starting to shift a little bit more towards the millennial traveler,” he said. “I think part of that is the millennials are getting to the point in their career where they’ve got time off, expendable income, so they have the ability to travel a little bit more than maybe they would have in the early days of the millennial generation coming into the workforce.”
Davis said the Furnace Creek Inn is more geared towards couples because most of the rooms have one king-sized bed, and the property has a slightly higher price point.
Stephen Andrews, VP of sales & marketing at Passport Resorts, a company that provides management and marketing for Cavallo Point: The Lodge at Golden Gate, said the company has also seen a change in guest mix in the past few years. The Cavallo Point property is located near the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.
“Since opening in 2008, the mix has somewhat shifted,” Andrews said via email. “While the destination still sees strong and consistent visitation by families, singles and couples covering the demographic spectrum of seniors, boomers, (generation X) and millennials, we have seen a significant increase in millennials as this market has matured and grown in the Bay Area. Millennial visitation accounts for somewhere in the 25% to 30% range now.”
Andrews also said more international travelers are visiting national parks in California.
“Many international travelers also make a point of including multiple national park destinations during a single visit; this is quite common,” he said. “Increases in international markets is definitely a trend, particularly since California and the Bay Area are such enormous international destinations for international travelers. Their desire to visit and experience national parks within California makes the region even more attractive as a destination.”