By Brandon Walker EBS LOCAL EDITOR
BIG SKY – The tourism industry is the metaphorical thread that holds the community of Big Sky together. With the onset of COVID-19, that essential industry has received a near total knockout blow. It came down all at once: no spring breakers and no Big Sky Resort. Effectively, no tourism.
“The pipeline, so to speak, has been shut off after March 15 really,” said Tim Drain, general manager of Natural Retreats Big Sky. “…We have canceled 97 reservations just in the month of March … Those were virtually all weeklong stays that we had in place.”
Drain, as well as Big Sky Vacation Rentals Owner Kirsten King and Wilson Hotel General Manager Mandy Hotovy, were conclusive in acknowledging March 15, the date that Big Sky Resort announced it would suspend operations, as the day that the flow of people in and out of Big Sky began to plummet.
Candace Carr Strauss, CEO of Visit Big Sky, reported that of the lodging and property management companies that are not completely closed at this time, not one had reported an occupancy level greater than 10 percent.
“Currently we’re not encouraging people to travel to Big Sky,” Carr Strauss said. “In following the CDC’s guidance and social distancing as well as the directives coming from Gov. Bullock … for public health and safety we’re not encouraging it.”
“We had a handful of booking requests that were starting to come in, none of them ever came to fruition…we would have ended up canceling them anyway,” Drain said, referring to when the outbreak began to rapidly spread.
King echoed Drain’s testament: “We have not had a booking request for a paid reservation between March 23 and June 1,” she said.
Shoulder seasons, periods of time when tourist visitation in the area drops off, are normal in Big Sky as visitors ebb and flow with the changing seasons. However, the current national pandemic forced Big Sky into an early state reminiscent of shoulder season, only with far less warning.
Of the 70 properties Natural Retreats oversees, Drain said, only four are occupied by guests who were in those properties before March 15. The occupants range from homeowners to individuals who cannot travel due to restrictions or believe it’s more dangerous to leave. “It’s either safer for them to shelter in place currently where they are, regardless of where it is, than for them to get on a plane and travel right now,” he said.
On April 1, BSVR sat at a lowly 7 percent occupancy throughout their 128 properties, King said, a meager drop in the bucket when compared to the greater than 96 percent occupancy rate they witnessed the day prior to Big Sky Resort’s closing announcement on March 14. She added that a majority of the remaining occupants are homeowners.
In a similar fashion to the vacation rental companies, Hotovy said The Wilson Hotel is seeing a common theme with the majority of their guests as well: workers. “It’s more of the special corporate-like individuals that are here to say still work or are coming in for the hospital,” Hotovy said. As an added precautionary measure, she noted common areas such as the pool and game room are no longer open to guests at The Wilson.
Drain estimated that Natural Retreats has lost nearly $500,000 in bookings from all of the cancelations they have received. “Nobody knows exactly what the status of travel and various destinations will be two weeks, a month, [even] three months from now,” Drain said.
With so many unknown factors and decisions surrounding the virus and what could lie ahead for the nation, the tourism industry isn’t expecting any changes soon. “What we’re currently seeing is [bookings] actually for the month of say August, September and October,” Hotovy said.
“We’re really looking for people to look further into the future for booking their travel plans, so that we can be assured that the experience that they’re expecting can be met,” King said. “…I don’t think anything prior to June, that we could provide a guest experience comparable to what we’ve been able to do in the past.”
Visit Big Sky has shifted its messaging to one that is future oriented as well. “We are still putting messages out there to inspire people to travel tomorrow … so a lot of our messaging is [to] keep the dream alive and plan now for a visit tomorrow,” Carr Strauss said.
Drain and King both said their respective companies are relaying all of Gov. Bullock’s orders to individuals who are in their properties and limiting interactions with them as much as possible, outside of emergency needs. Hotovy added that her staff has taken numerous precautionary measures to limit guest interactions as well, and they’re also keeping visitors up to date with any announcements from the governor.
“The safety of our team members, the safety of our guests, the safety of our homeowners—our responsibility for not spreading this anymore in the community—is our number one priority, right now, above anything else,” Drain said.