A look at makeup, performance of National Park hotels
A look at makeup, performance of National Park hotels
22 MAY 2019 8:21 AM

With visits to U.S. National Parks on a steep growth curve over the past decade, hotels located within and nearby have been able to overcome pressures from diverse and growing competition, as well as seasonality and disruption due to natural disasters and government shutdowns.

BROOMFIELD, Colorado—Planning to visit a National Park over the three-day weekend? Whether you’re staying at a campground, deep in the woods or at a hotel, you likely won’t be alone, as Memorial Day is one of the busiest days for the U.S. National Park system. Some key points regarding these National Park hotel markets include:

  • Hotels around national parks tend to be unbranded, and in the lower chain scales. There is also considerable alternative-accommodation supply in these areas.
  • National Park markets are highly seasonal, and see greater performance swings from weekdays to weekends than the total U.S.
  • Although National Park hotel markets are very reliant on the parks as a demand driver, an impact to that demand driver can have varying effect on the surrounding hotel markets.

National parks continue growing in popularity
National Parks have never been more popular in terms of total number of recreation visits, with the last four years being the busiest years on record at 77.5 million in 2015, 84.7 million in 2016, 86.3 million in 2017 and 84.6 million in 2018. Over the past 10 years, parks have seen a 32% increase in recreation visits, with some major parks seeing that figure double over the 10-year period. This analysis focused hotel markets around National Parks using radial searches from park entrances of the following parks: Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Zion, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Acadia, Olympic, Glacier, Joshua Tree, Arches and Badlands.

Hotel supply characteristics
Hotels in National Park markets tend to be in the Economy, Midscale and Upper Midscale classes, with 72.4% of the hotel supply falling into those classes, versus 62.3% of total U.S. hotel supply. Additionally, these hotels tend to be smaller (70 rooms versus 95 in the total U.S.) and are less likely to be branded properties. 57.6% of hotels around the National Parks analyzed were independent, more than double the 28.5% of hotels in the country.

Of course, what makes these hotel markets especially unique is the availability of alternative accommodations. Outside of the National Parks, there are options from home rentals to nearby campgrounds to glamping, estimated to grow to a $1 billion industry by 2024, according to research by Arizton. There are also options within the park, including tent and RV campgrounds or simply finding a comfy spot in the woods. In the summer months, almost as many people stay within the parks as stay in nearby hotels. According to the National Park Service Visitor Use Statistics, there were more than 6.6 million overnight stays within the 12 analyzed parks in 2018, including concessioner lodging and camping, tent and RV camping and backcountry camping.

Weekday variability and seasonality
National Park markets are mainly leisure-driven markets, with leisure demand making up 78% of the hotel demand in 2018. Unsurprisingly, the markets tend to see much higher weekend occupancy than weekday occupancy, growing from 59.6% on weekdays to 75.5% on weekends.

National Parks are also highly seasonal markets, with peak visitation in the summer, particularly July. This is partially due to the leisure-demand nature of these markets, seeing higher visitation during school breaks and holidays. However, the seasonality changes from market to market depending on weather conditions, as the main reason to visit National Parks is to enjoy the outdoors. One outlier, Joshua Tree National Park, sees peak monthly attendance and hotel occupancy in March, which is understandable considering high temperatures in the summer are consistently above 95°F, according to U.S Climate Data.

The Badlands National Park is the most seasonal hotel market analyzed, with a 61-point spread between the slowest month, January, and the highest occupancy month, July. National Park markets as a whole see a 48-point spread, while the total U.S. sees a swing of 22 points.

These occupancies only account for open properties, however, and some markets see a considerable number of seasonal closures. Acadia National Park and Badlands National Park hotel markets both shrink significantly in the winter months, with only 57% of hotel supply in the Acadia market and 40% of hotel supply in the Badlands market staying open year round.

Many holidays, with people off of work and kids out of school, see high occupancies for National Park markets. This chart from Arches National Park in 2016 shows that the top three days for total daily vehicle entrances were Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day. National Parks as a whole tend to see very high attendance on these days, and the hotel markets surrounding the parks see very high occupancies. The top occupancy day in 2018 for the National Park markets analyzed was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, at 94%. The Saturday of Memorial Day weekend was also in the top 10, with an occupancy of 90%.

However, while holidays certainly see high performance, those holidays can often be comparable or even less than the average weekend performance in the holiday’s month. Since the Fourth of July can fall mid-week, occupancy and ADR for that holiday are often less than the average weekend occupancy and ADR for the markets in July. Labor Day weekend typically sees performance comparable to other weekends in September, while Memorial Day weekend (falling later in the month, with a better chance of warmer weather) outperforms other May weekends.

Demand impacts: Wildfires, government shutdowns
Since hotel markets surrounding National Parks are highly dependent on the parks as a demand driver, when park attendance drops, hotel performance in the surrounding areas is often impacted. A previous article by Ali Hoyt, senior director of consulting and analytics for STR, parent company of HNN, looked at the negative performance impact of the 2013 government shutdown on hotel markets surrounding National Parks. However, the most recent government shutdown from 22 December 2018 to 25 January 2019 saw RevPAR increase 5.7% over the same period in the previous year. One factor is the typically low hotel performance in these markets in January. Another factor is that although many National Parks had limited to no staffing, some parks remained open, and others, notably Joshua Tree National Park, still saw visitors despite being closed.

Natural disasters can also have a varying impact on National Park market performance, as seen by comparing the California Ferguson Fire in 2018 and the Colorado Fern Lake Fire in 2012. Although recreation visits dropped in both Rocky Mountain and Yosemite National Parks during the fires, Rocky Mountain actually saw a lift in hotel demand. Demand drivers around Rocky Mountain are slightly more diverse than Yosemite, with close access to cities such as Fort Collins, Boulder and Denver, as well as plenty of scenic drives available for autumn leaf peeping. Additionally, visitation comments from the National Park Service note that the Ferguson Fire had a significant impact to park operations, closing many main roads within the park, while closures during the Fern Lake Fire were less significant.

Hotel performance climbs in Yosemite
One fun National Parks statistic to leave you with: Many people (myself included) have become fascinated by the rock climbing documentaries that have been released in the past year, notably “Free Solo” and “The Dawn Wall.” “The Dawn Wall” follows Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson on their 19-day first free ascent of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite, and also outlines the growing media attention as the climb progressed. This media attention came with a noticeable impact on recreation visits and hotel performance in the Yosemite area, particularly as it came in Yosemite’s slowest month. January 2015 marked the highest number of recreation visits for the month that Yosemite had seen since 1994 (later surpassed in 2016 and 2018). Yosemite area hotels also benefitted, seeing a 14% lift in occupancy and a 17% increase in RevPAR in the period from the release of the initial New York Times piece about the climb to the climb’s completion.

Hannah Smith is a consultant in STR's Consulting & Analytics division.

This article represents an interpretation of data collected by STR, parent company of HNN. Please feel free to comment or contact an editor with any questions or concerns.

1 Comment

  • Tony Nelson May 22, 2019 3:31 PM Reply

    Great article - I would add to the reasons for increased visitation (and will continue to grow) because of the desire for “experience” based travel.. going to Zion National Park, Grand Canyon and others is an Awe inspiring and an experience like no other. Not to mention the experiences in those areas; 4wheeling, Jeep tours, house back rides etc)

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