NE Wyoming tourism season marked by uncertainty

GILLETTE — When the coronavirus pandemic began to impact the economy more than two months ago, there was a lot of uncertainty on how it would play out. Today, as states and communities start to reopen, it’s difficult to predict what the recovery will look like.

That includes Wyoming’s second largest industry, tourism. Memorial Day weekend marks the start of tourism season, and those who work in the hospitality industry are unsure about what to expect this summer.

Kasie Wanke, general manager of the La Quinta Inns & Suites in Gillette, said the past two months have “been a little scary.”

The year started off well with the first two months tracking ahead of 2019, she said. But at the end of March and into April as state and local responses to the pandemic began to accelerate, travel and hotel business “really tanked,” she said.

“Everything changed all the time,” she said. “It hit fast.”

In April, her hotel had an occupancy rate of 18%. Compared to April 2019, that was a 75% decrease. Much of the hotel’s staff had to be laid off and hours were cut. Wednesday afternoon, Wanke was the only person working the front desk.

She hopes to bring her staff back.

“They’re still on our payroll. But we had the hope that this would be shorter-lived than it has been,” she said.

Wanke estimates that 60% or more of the hotel’s customers each year are from leisure travel, and she hopes to see an uptick in visitors this summer.

“We’d like to see things returning to semi-normal,” Wanke said.

But she doesn’t know if that’s going to happen this summer.

“Everything that’s kept Gillette (hotels) afloat — the tour buses, special events, conventions — all that stuff is canceled,” she said.

Thanks to the pandemic, 2020 figures to be a much different tourism season compared to last year, when local hotels, motels and campgrounds brought in more than $25 million in revenue, the highest since 2015.

Statewide, visitors spent more than $3.95 billion on travel.

Jessica Seders, executive director of the Campbell County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said business will pick up eventually.

“I think we’ll see a good bounce-back, but it’s hard to gauge when that will be,” she said.

Each state has its own guidelines and restrictions regarding the coronavirus. How soon Wyoming’s neighbors open up also will affect its tourist traffic.

Seders said during the pandemic, the marketing strategy was “to keep Campbell County in the forefront of people’s minds.”

The Cowboy State has a lot going for it. Its wide open spaces, low population and relatively low infection rate during the pandemic all make it a favorable destination. But whether that translates into a good tourism season has yet to be seen.

Seders said she expects to see a lot of regional travel, with people from neighboring states coming to Wyoming, but it will take longer to see visitors from farther away. She also expects there to be little to no international travel.

Wanke said that most of the tour buses that had been scheduled for this summer have already canceled.

Since Gillette is a stop along people’s drives to Yellowstone or Mount Rushmore, how well the city does in business from those travelers depends largely on what happens with those main attractions.

Both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks partially reopened last week after being closed for seven weeks.

Friday, Devils Tower reopened its trails and park roads and welcomed back climbers. The visitors center and campground remain closed.

Camping at state parks reopened to residents May 15. Thursday morning, 84% of the campsites at Keyhole State Park were booked for Sunday.

Rockpile Museum director Robert Henning said he doesn’t know what to expect this summer. The museum gets about half of its annual traffic in the three summer months, and many of those are people who are just passing through Gillette.

He said it’s possible that for the museum, a tourism season “never really comes” this year, but it’s also possible people will want to travel after being cooped up for two months.

“We may see a lot of people want to come to the museum, or there may not be as much as we might think,” he said. “We’ll have to adjust to that. I can see certainly a decrease compared to normal, but how much that’s going to be I don’t know.”

Henning said small museums around the state have been slowly reopening.

“Everybody’s doing their best to make changes, and a lot of folks really need to be open because they depend on that admission,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll survive this. Some fear some of the smaller museums may not make it.”

The museums that depend on visitors paying admission need to open their doors to survive, he said. While the Rockpile Museum is free, it depends on county funding to operate. Fewer visitors means fewer tax dollars.

“When those funds are down, you get concerned a little bit,” Henning said.

Sonja Melick, manager at High Plains Campground, said only 5% of her customer base comes from tourism, but she’s still been hit hard by the pandemic. Most of her business comes from transit workers who work in the oil field, railroad, roofing and construction.

With the hits to those industries, she’s lost 80% of her clientele since March. When one loses that much business, “you cut back on everything that’s not essential,” she said. “You name it, we’ve had to cut back on it.”

Melick said she’s gone from having three employees to having to do the work of four people herself running the campground, cleaning and performing upkeep and garbage pickup.

“I never thought it’d be as serious as what they made it out to be,” she said about the pandemic. “I hope it goes back to the way it was before.”

Things have started to pick up a little bit. With a softball tournament in town this weekend, both Wanke and Melick have seen increased traffic. Wanke’s received calls from potential customers. Melick also is seeing some construction crews coming in.

“It’s nothing to get excited for,” Melick said, adding that it’s still better than the last couple of months.

Energy and leisure travel are the two pillars that support the local hospitality industry, Wanke said.

“We lost a lot of crews and workers due to the energy (industry) declining,” Wanke said. “They’re normally our base business for the entire year.”

So even if tourism does rebound this summer, the uncertain future of fossil fuels will continue to impact local hotels and campgrounds, she said.

Compared to the coal mine layoffs in 2015 and 2016, Melick said this pandemic is twice as bad, and she expects that it will take at least a year to recover.

“It’s like any other downswing,” she said. “Campbell County is strong. It will survive. It’ll just come back a little slower this time.”