Central Montana sees slight improvement in tourism numbers

Friday, August 28, 2020
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Sarah Shepard pours a beer during lunch at Central Feed Grilling Company on Aug. 28. The staff is required to mask when the county has four or more active cases of COVID-19.  
Photo by Katherine Sears

As Montana inches through Phase Two of Governor Steve Bullock’s reopening plan, the local tourism industry is still feeling the effects of COVID-19, but faring better than expected.
Across the board in Montana, tourism spending is down in 2020. Part of this can be attributed to national parks and other tourism-related entities being closed in March and April due to the virus. Glacier and Yellowstone national parks saw a large decline in visitors for June compared to 2019, down 62% and 32%, respectively, according to the National Park Service. However, Yellowstone had a 2% uptick in visitors in July compared to last year. A rule of thumb is when the national parks do well, Montana’s tourism does well, since visitors spend extra time driving through Montana just to get there, according to University of Montana Institute for Tourism.
Another factor affecting tourism is a general hesitancy to travel, according to University of Montana Travel Institute research. A survey by Destination Analysts determined that about one-third of American travelers have at least tentative trip plans for the remainder of 2020, while nearly half say the COVID-19 situation has changed their travel plans. However, optimism continues to grow. Nearly one in five surveyed feel the pandemic will be resolved by the end of 2020.
This is good news for Montana, travelers, and the local hotels and restaurants, which have been weathering the storm of COVID-19 and rolling with the punches.

Food bounced back
Central Feed Grilling General Manager Brad McCardle said the COVID situation has required the business to be dynamic, from offering only take-out in March and April, to spreading out seating starting in June. “I think our saving grace was being able to spread out,” McCardle said. The old feed store-converted restaurant and brewery on Main Street has two levels, but the upstairs was only used for special events until state COVID-19 restrictions required restaurants to keep tables 6 feet apart. “We were actually able to increase capacity by spreading out upstairs,” McCardle added.
A lot of business since reopening has been from people traveling from out of town. “We saw a lot of faces we didn’t recognize,” noted McCardle.

He said a look out into the parking lot would yield the sight of several out-of state-license plates.
The next challenge came when Governor Steve Bullock issued a mask mandate for counties with more than four active COVID-19 cases. “When we were asked to wear masks, I think that’s when it got stressful for our staff and our customers,” noted McCardle. Although it was controversial, McCardle said people largely respected the mask request, but it was a hard concept. “Out of all of this, I think that was probably the toughest time,” he added.
Despite the circumstances, business has been comparable to last year. The removal of bar stools due to restrictions has hurt beer sales, but food sales are holding up. “May through July we are slightly down from last year,” said McCardle, “Some related to COVID, but a lot from not doing events.”

Lodging is down
Local lodging is taking a bigger hit than food service, with the cancellation of several events that normally bring visitors into town for overnight stays, including the Charlie Russell Chew Choo Train and the Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
Although there is no data about capacity specific to the Central Montana area, and bed tax is not exactly a good way to track capacity, the general consensus from hoteliers is that overnight lodging is down compared to normal years.
Melissa Wierman, manager at Mountain Acres RV Park in Lewistown, said capacity is down compared to previous years. “The cancellation of the Chew Choo and events in town has affected our business,” said Wierman. But, she’s hopeful. “Chokecherry’s still on and I’m completely booked, which is nice,” she happily shared.  
The historic Yogo Inn has seen the same reduction in business due to cancellations of major events. “We saw dramatic decreases,” said Susanne Wigginton, owner of the Yogo Inn. The on-site restaurant was closed for a few months and did not reopen until July. “The demand just wasn’t there to support the operation,” Wigginton noted. The downturn in guests led to a big decrease in traffic into the restaurant.
Chris Taylor of Pheasant Tales Bed and Bistro said her and her husband’s business was initially affected, but when the national parks opened in June, they saw business pick up. “I think people were seeking a place they felt safe,” said Taylor, whose property is located three miles outside of Lewistown. Business from baseball tournaments in town and construction crews working in the area coupled with the help of government programs stemming from COVID-19, have helped the Taylors keep up.
“Business has picked up, although it wasn’t what it was in 2019,” added Taylor. The arrival of hunters this fall will be a welcome sight for the Taylors. “Bird hunters are actually up from last year,” said Taylor.

Economic impact
In 2019, nonresidents contributed $362.5 million to the Central Montana Travel Region’s economy, according to University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. Approximately $59.6 million was spent in restaurants and bars, while $44.8 million was spent on hotels and motels. Nonresidents spent $6.3 million staying in rental cabins or condos and campgrounds and RV parks. The most money was spent on gas and diesel, accounting for 33% of total nonresident spending for the region, which equated to about $99 million.
As far as 2020’s total nonresident economic impact, it’s anyone’s guess according to Gayle Fischer, executive director of Central Montana Tourism Region. “We’re kind of in uncharted territory here,” said Fischer, “We don’t have hard data yet.” Even though there won’t be real data on tourism’s economic impact until the end of the year, Fischer noted there seemed to be an increase in traffic to the area despite COVID-19.
“It seems like there’s traffic moving around,” said Fischer, “I was surprised there is a fair amount of people – even Lewistown seemed steady,” she added after having visited several towns in Central Montana last week.
Fischer reported that tourism spending was up in the second quarter of the year and projects the third quarter will also be up. “We were stronger for the second calendar quarter,” said Fischer, “And we’re hoping for a strong hunting season.” 



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