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Holiday visitation appears to top last winter’s record crowds

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By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer

BIG SKY – Many consider last winter an inflection point for Big Sky, the year it was “discovered” thanks to a combination of record-setting snowfall in Montana and scant precipitation for swaths of resorts in Colorado, Utah and California. Although exact numbers are difficult to nail down, this holiday season may even outstrip last year.

“Anecdotally, winter [2018-2019] is shaping up to be one of Big Sky’s best,” said Candace Carr Strauss, CEO of Visit Big Sky and executive director of the chamber of commerce. “Demand from Big Sky Resort [adding] the Ikon and Mountain Collective pass products, its installation of the first D-line 8-seater Doppelmayr chair lift in North America, early season snowfall, and the myriad of new and classic product offerings such as the Spanish Peaks Mountain Club Snowcat Dinner and world-class cross-country skiing at Lone Mountain Ranch continue to draw visitors to Big Sky.”

Taylor Middleton, general manager of Big Sky Resort, agreed with Strauss: “Great snow, two new lifts, 25 [percent] more air seats into Bozeman, and a growing community. Everything is coming together to make a wonderful holiday.”

Beyond the increase in available seats, Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport expects holiday traveler traffic to be up 15 to 20 percent over last year, according to airport director Brian Sprenger.

“The holiday period to some degree is probably reflective of last year’s strong numbers in the airline scene, a strong ski market as well,” Sprenger said. “I don’t think you can point to a single factor, but all of the factors seem to be increasing significantly.”

Now offering nonstop flights to 15 major cities throughout the winter, the airport has outperformed its projected 8.5-percent passenger growth, likely landing between 10.5 and 11 percent for the year, Sprenger said. He attributed some the growth to the substantial population of Bozeman, creating an anchor for airlines to have consistent flights, which directly benefits Big Sky and its ski market.

Sprenger said each passenger coming through the airport equates to approximately $1,000 of economic impact to the community. Considering the final counts for 2018 will be close to 665,000 passengers, he estimated $665 million dollars of economic impact in southwest Montana via the airport.

The increase in available seats also bodes well for bringing tourists once the holidays are over.

“The first battle we have in getting people here is making sure we have seats,” Sprenger said. “Well, this year we will absolutely have the seats.”

Local businesses felt the holiday crush as well. Roxy’s Market had its biggest day in terms of overall sales to date on Dec. 24, according to grocery department manager TJ Toponce. And the very next day, Christmas Eve, they beat that record by approximately 9 percent.

“This year for us has been our busiest year that we’ve seen,” Toponce said. “It’s been great. We’ve been loving the steady traffic.”

Although he’s seen a lot of familiar faces, Toponce said he’s fielded questions about points of interest or favorite ski runs from quite a few newcomers. He met visitors from the southeastern states, California, Texas and international tourists as well.

The traffic is an obvious indicator of the number of people here, especially when the resort closes at the end of the day.

“We have a pretty good view of the road and you just see this line, bumper to bumper, going down the mountain,” Toponce said.

The Country Market, Big Sky’s longest-serving grocery store, hasn’t seen a huge spike this holiday season, but had a markedly busier November thanks to the early season snow, store owner Lynne Anderson said.

“Frankly, our Christmas doesn’t really change year to year,” Lynne said. “It’s the surrounding months that change.” The first three months of the year are really what count for her business, she added.

Area restaurants were busy to the point that locals and visitors alike found it challenging to eat out unless they’d booked far in advance.

The Stanier family, visiting from Asheville, North Carolina, faced a two-hour wait at one restaurant on New Year’s Eve and inquired at another restaurant, which was booked through the evening.

“We came here five years ago, and at that time we didn’t worry at all about reservations,” Ashley Stanier said. “We just kind of played it by ear, but it’s been a little trickier this time.” They had enjoyed a dinner at Everett’s 8800 at the top of Big Sky Resort’s Andesite Mountain and were looking forward to dining at the Cabin Bar and Grill.

On the slopes of Big Sky Resort, however, they found plenty of room and terrain to go around.

“This mountain offers something for everyone,” Ashley Stanier said. She and her daughter, Sydney, were skiing together while her two sons and husband skied elsewhere, and the kids’ 79-year-old grandfather took a rest day.

The lack of crowds stood in contrast to Vail Ski Resort in Colorado, where they had visited the past several years.

“You feel it on the mountain as you ski down,” Sydney Stanier said. “I don’t feel people are in my way and sometimes at Vail I would feel like I was about to hit people.”

The family stayed in Moonlight Basin at a vacation rental, a popular lodging option in the area.

Natural Retreat’s general manager Tim Drain said the holidays were as busy, if not busier, than last year for the vacation rental company, as they had added properties to their portfolio.

“With us, just the nature of what lodging is in Big Sky now, there’s not a lot of hotels, so vacation rentals are always full,” Drain said. “So, it’s always been 100-percent occupancy every year.”

Despite the stronger business and extra properties, he said guests have been arriving and departing in staggered waves thanks to Christmas and New Year’s falling on Tuesdays instead of weekends, making for a more manageable year for the property management company.

Drain mentioned how this year was interesting because it bucked the trend of shortening booking windows he’d observed over the years. The number of advanced bookings Natural Retreats saw spiked significantly compared to past years, Drain said, indicating that visitors might be planning further ahead for their stays in Big Sky instead of deciding to come last minute.

For Drain, the reason why is obvious: After hitting the map last season, Big Sky is a place vacationers are choosing to give a try over their typical ski destinations.

As Candace Carr Strauss put it, “The best kept secret in the Rocky Mountain West is getting discovered.”

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