By Bella Butler MANAGING EDITOR
BIG SKY – Early this summer, extreme flooding gushed through southwest Montana, tearing through communities in a short-term event with lasting repercussions. While perhaps an emblem of all sorts, Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky CEO Brad Niva suggests this historic occurrence might be the perfect metaphor for business in Big Sky.
For the last two years, Big Sky was busy. Really busy. Caught in the throes of a pandemic side effect that saw booming visitation to Western mountain towns, Big Sky was swollen with visitors. These seemingly anomalous years, however, were what Niva calls “the high water mark.”
This summer, that flood of visitors is subsiding, and some business owners are finding the steadier stream of tourism is perhaps more sustainable.
“It was just crazy for a couple of years and now we feel like the pendulum’s swinging back to where it might be normal,” said Hungry Moose Market & Deli owner Kristin Kern. “It’s definitely an uptick from three years ago, but maybe not as much as last year.”
It’s an August Monday morning at the Moose, and a small rush of customers float through the Town Center-based store grabbing coffee and pastries before heading out to work. The store is busy but relaxed—a noticeable feeling following the long lines and sometimes irritable customers that filled businesses last summer.
Kern’s observation about business at the Moose is reflected in a number of data sets from the summer that indicate visitation to southwest Montana is down. Passengers recorded at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport this July were down more than 7 percent from last July (nationally, total air travel was down 12 percent).
After two record-breaking summers, visitation to Yellowstone National Park this July was down 45 percent from last July, when the most-ever visits to the park were recorded, and down 36 percent from 2019, the last pre-COVID year. The park notably has two entrances closed this summer due to flooding that devastated the park’s infrastructure in June.
Locally, occupancy in Big Sky was down up to 28 percent from last summer, according to Niva. While total resort tax collections during July are not yet posted, collections in June this year were down 2 percent from last year.
Niva described the dip in visitation as a “correction.”
“We’ve just seen accelerated visitation coming in and out of this area,” Niva said. “And now that COVID is going away and the rest of the world is opening up, we’re starting to see that pressure relief.”
When you remove what may be revealed as outlier years of 2020 and 2021 however, Niva said business is still on a growth trend. For example, he reported that while occupancy is down this summer from 2021, it’s still 10-15 percent higher than it was in 2019.
While occupancy has long been used as a metric for visitation and business health in Big Sky, Niva also suggested it may be missing the mark on measuring a new trend in tourism: day visitors.
“Yes, we are seeing a softening of overnight guests,” Niva said. “But what we are seeing a huge increase of … is day trippers. Day trip business is off
Niva, who since starting at the chamber and VBS in 2020 has focused on tapping into more local business and tourism data, said there aren’t many figures that can currently provide insight on this rising trend, but it’s something he hopes to capture in the future. Most of this insight was anecdotal, Niva said, referring to rushes of tourists in the visitor’s center asking for lunch recommendations, and an overflowing Ousel Falls parking lot.
Eric Becker, owner of Geyser Whitewater Expeditions, agreed that lower visitation certainly didn’t translate to a ghost town.
“We ended up being 100 percent booked for the year and business was robust and record breaking,” Becker said. “However, we did notice fewer people in town. Last year … we had days and days of waiting lists and for people to go rafting. We had a lot fewer days of waiting lists this year.”
Becker said after the flooding and closures in Yellowstone, Geyser did receive thousands of cancelations, but they were eventually rebooked.
Offset from the main drag of Big Sky and located near the junction between U.S. Highway 191 and Montana Highway 64, often considered the entrance to Big Sky, Café 191 is also reporting record numbers.
Owner John Delzer said businesses this summer has doubled from last year, perhaps in part due to being open every day as well as the type of traffic the breakfast and lunch joint sees.
“We do get a lot of local traffic, which has always been a goal of mine,” he said. “And we definitely get a lot of drive-by traffic, people that may not even be going to Big Sky or may not even know that Big Sky is there.”
The impacts on business may be more apparent closer to town. Twist Thompson, owner of Blue Buddha Sushi Lounge and co-owner of soon-to-open taco restaurant Tres Toros, has definitely noticed less people in town this summer, but as a restaurant owner he said it’s been a reprieve.
“We’re in the yes industry; We’re in the yes business,” Thompson said. “It is our jobs to try to accommodate to the best of our ability, and I was saying no last year, last winter and last summer, more than I was saying yes.”
It was hard to turn people away—locals, customers looking to celebrate, all had to hear “We’re booked.”
Doing a lot of business is great, Thompson said, but restaurants have never been about money for him.
“It was always first and foremost about service and creating an energy and a vibe and a moment in time,” he said. “And if you have to say no to more people than you say yes to, you’re definitely not doing that.”
This year, Thompson is happy to be saying yes a lot more.
Looking ahead at the next few months, Niva said the fall shoulder season, when Big Sky traditionally sees a big dip in occupancy, will likely resemble pre-COVID shoulder seasons, which saw occupancy around 20-25 percent compared to 40-45 percent the last two years.
Niva said VBS will push marketing for shoulder season visitation in the coming months.