By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer
BIG SKY – Every year, during the same weeks in July and December, restaurants are packed; grocery lines, long; and roadways, bustling. This brimming of Big Sky was especially evident in July, beginning with record crowds at Music in the Mountains on the Fourth of July and culminating in the record-breaking attendance of Big Sky PBR and surrounding events.
But how does this summer compare to previous summers in terms of general busyness? While exact visitation numbers are difficult to establish, members of the community who are on the front lines engaging with the visitor sector most, provided anecdotal insight.
“The Hungry Moose has been busy,” said Jackie Robin, owner of the market and deli. “As busy or more than last summer.” Lines to buy beer or use the bathroom have been out the door at the Town Center location during the weekly Music in the Mountains concert series.
Brian Hurlbut, executive director of the Arts Council of Big Sky and longtime Music in the Mountains facilitator, had similar observations.
“I guess my perception is that it’s at least as busy as last summer, if not busier,” Hurlbut said. “I think the concerts are pretty similar to last summer. But I do feel like there have been more people in town overall.”
He said concert attendance exploded last summer and thinks those numbers have carried over to this summer. He estimates a minimum of 2,000-3,000 people have attended Music in the Mountains each week, with the July 4th and Shovels & Rope concerts pressing into the 5,000-6,000 range, adding that the latter might’ve drawn the biggest crowd yet.
“That Shovels & Rope show, there were a lot of people there,” Hurlbut said. He’s certain the crowd that night outstripped the crowd at last year’s equivalent show by the Turnpike Troubadours. Hurlbut admitted that it’s difficult to accurately gauge the numbers from his perceptions, but judging from a July 4, 2012 photo, he’s confident there are two-to-three times more people at concerts this summer.
Data from the Big Sky Community Organization backs that sentiment. In a July 31 email, BSCO Executive Director Ciara Wolfe wrote that the Big Sky Community Park has seen an increase of 9,549 vehicles in June and July compared to the same months last year. At the Ousel Falls trailhead, the vehicle count for both months is up 1,197 from 2017.
Trails at Big Sky Resort are also seeing more use. This season to date, bike-haul visits on the lifts are up 39 percent year-over-year, according to the resort’s vice president of business development, Annie Pinkert.
“Last weekend, with the Enduro Race in town, it was the busiest weekend on record for bike haul visits here at Big Sky,” Pinkert wrote in an email to EBS.
The Grizzly Outfitters bike shop has ridden the bike wave this summer with increased bike rentals.
“It’s been a big spike,” longtime Grizzly Outfitters employee Andy Haynes said. “Especially with all the trails that are starting to be discovered around here.”
He said the resort has done a good job making the mountain more approachable for inexperienced mountain bikers by adding trail options for beginner and intermediate bikers.
“They’re starting to realize that scary trails don’t sell lift tickets and season passes so I think they’re putting some really good effort in up there,” Haynes said.
Although it sounds like a consensus, the jury is still out, according to Candace Carr Strauss, CEO of Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky.
Strauss relies on numbers that haven’t been calculated yet to gauge visitation to the area: visitation records from Yellowstone National Park paired with traffic at the West Gate, monthly resort tax collections, state lodging tax revenue, Bozeman airport traffic and data aggregated from lodging establishments around Big Sky.
At the park, May visitation numbers blew the top off past years and June was the second highest month on record. Similarly, the airport hit a new landmark for passenger counts, after posting year-over-year gains the past seven years.
In 2017, Big Sky’s average occupancy rate for the year was 41.5 percent, Strauss said. She conceded that for the busiest three weeks of the year, lodging occupancy might hit 65-70 percent, but otherwise falls short of the ideal mark.
“In spite of seeing the park at record levels; in spite of seeing record flight numbers out of [Bozeman], we’re a bit down this summer,” Strauss said. “We’re trying to figure out, what is that a result of?”
Strauss said that West Yellowstone and Glacier lodging businesses communicated similar findings.
Price sensitivity seems to be playing a role, she said, as visitors are staying as far away the west entrance as Pocatello, Idaho, or Bozeman to save money on lodging. She mentioned that the presidential administration has contributed to curtailing international visitation, as well.
Strauss said Visit Big Sky’s new website launch in August will help track gross numbers, but that numbers are only valuable to a point.
“More visitors does not equal success for Big Sky,” Strauss said. “It’s the right visitor, and the right visitor at the right time when we need the visitation.”