Taking over the hospitality services in one of America’s busiest parks would be challenging in any season, but if ever there was a year to test the mettle of Glacier National Park’s newly minted concessioner, it was 2016.
The centennial of the National Park Service delivered record-breaking crowds to Glacier’s corridors even as park administrators chafed under the constraints of continued federal budget cuts. By the time the upper alpine section of Going-to-the-Sun Road closed for the season in September, Glacier had set a new annual attendance record with more than 2.72 million visitors in 2016.
And by every metric, Xanterra Parks and Resorts exceeded expectations, funneling resources not only toward the park system’s infrastructural needs but also supporting ancillary businesses in gateway communities, hiring local contractors to rehabilitate and remodel the park’s iconic lodges, sourcing local food, and diverting literal tons of waste through a composting program.
As the concessioner operating lodging, retail, transportation, and food and drink within Glacier National Park, Xanterra serves a prominent role in fulfilling the National Park Service’s mission to serve the needs of the visiting public while acting as the gatekeeper to America’s cherished public lands.
“We have tried to invent a role in which we are leaders not only in legendary hospitality, but also in sustainability,” said Marc Ducharme, general manager of Xanterra’s Glacier contract. “We made the decision to walk the walk and soften our footprint, and I think that investment is going to pay off in the long-term.”
Wrapping up its third full season at Glacier, Ducharme said Xanterra has built a “bond of trust” with the park service, as well as with local communities and business leaders, some of who expressed skepticism when the behemoth concessioner edged out the park’s longtime hospitality partner in 2013.
The 16-year contract to run the park’s lodging, food and beverage, retail, transportation and other visitor services had been held by Glacier Park Inc. (GPI) since 1981, when the Hummel brothers of Arizona sold the family-run institution to Greyhound Food Management and a contract was renegotiated. The bidding process to award a new contract began in December 2012 and was the first official rebidding process undertaken since the contract was awarded to GPI 32 years ago.
Xanterra’s ability to swoop in and seize the contract startled many at the time, and their first three years as the park’s lead concessioner drew scrutiny on the company, which also holds the primary concessions contracts for Yellowstone National Park, the nation’s oldest park, as well as Zion, Death Valley, Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore national parks.
Xanterra is the largest park concessioner in the country, owned by Philip Frederick Anschutz, one of the wealthiest billionaires in the nation (Forbes estimates his net worth at $7.6 billion). He also owns the Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corp., the company that until 2012 was drilling exploratory oil and gas wells on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation east of Glacier Park.
But at a time of continuing budget cuts, the concessioner’s role in keeping the national park system viable has never been more important, according to Derrick Crandall, counselor for the National Parks Hospitality Association, the national trade organization of concessioners working in the park system. It makes sense, then, that the parks agency tapped a deep-pocketed hospitality outfit that may be better suited to help offset federal budget cuts that have chewed into visitor services through sequestration, leading to maintenance backlogs, limited operating hours and even campground and park closures.
As a result, places like Yellowstone and Glacier national parks have been forced to close visitor centers and campgrounds, shorten hours and seasons, and eliminate ranger positions. Given that climate, the National Park Service is eyeing alternative funding measures to supplement its budget, Crandall said.
Still, Xanterra signed on to a monumental task, and Crandall said the company has gone above and beyond its contractual obligations, proving itself as a strong business partner and stalwart steward of the park.
“They are distinguishing themselves by doing not simply what they are contractually obligated to do, but demonstrating that as concessioners they have a deep, deep level of support for the National Park Service and want to deliver the kinds of extraordinary memories to the people who are visiting those units,” Crandall said. “And that means doing more.”
The catalogue of Xanterra’s achievements in 2016 alone is testament to the company doing more. Lots more.
The National Park Service awarded a $13.56 million contract to Swank Enterprises of Kalispell to rehabilitate the historic Many Glacier Hotel, the grand, 211-room lodge built in 1914 and managed by Xanterra’s Glacier National Park Lodges.
Prior to Glacier’s busy summer season, Xanterra wrapped up a $3 million renovation of the historic Lake McDonald Lodge, a contract awarded to Kalispell-based Hammerquist Casalegno LLC. Under Xanterra’s contract, it was only required to invest $900,000 in the remodel. It also fully renovated the guest rooms and public spaces at Rising Sun Motor Inn, while refurbishing and rebranding its dining facility at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. Swiftcurrent’s new restaurant, called ‘Nell’s, incorporates a healthier menu using local food and craft beer.
Ducharme said the reuben at ‘Nell’s is a telling example of the company’s commitment to local sustainability — it features grass-fed beef from B Bar Ranch in Bozeman, sauerkraut from the Birch Creek Hutterite Colony in Valier, rye bread from Wheat Montana, cheese from Lifeline Farm in Victor, and house-made thousand island dressing.
“It’s just a reuben, but every element of it is sourced locally,” said Jeremiah Hook, food and beverage manager for Xanterra. “Our reuben is kind of the perfect microcosm for the entire menu.”
Xanterra also raised $23,000 for the Glacier National Park Conservancy, the park’s official nonprofit partner, purchased 80 head of local lamb from Montana Highlands Ranch, partnered with local breweries to debut exclusive craft beers, and opened a public recycling center at its headquarters in Columbia Falls, which accepted 90,000 pounds of glass that would have otherwise gone to the local landfill.
The company committed to a $40,000 contract with Dirt Rich Compost to divert 36 tons of food scraps from local landfills, reducing the amount of solid waste by 22 percent compared to 2014. It purchased a solar panel as part of the Flathead Electric Solar Utility Network program to increase renewable energies in the Flathead Valley, and reduced its electricity usage by 12 percent and its water usage by 10 percent over 2014.
Of Xanterra’s total food and beverage purchases, 59 percent was local, equaling more than $1 million, of which $675,000 went to local food and beverage providers.
For its efforts, Xanterra was awarded the National Park Service’s “Good Neighbor” Environmental Award.
Most recently, Xanterra announced that it had purchased the Cedar Creek Lodge in Columbia Falls from local developer Mick Ruis, and intends to offer shoulder-season activities for guests, including scuba diving lessons and an extension of the Columbia Falls farmers market.
“I think we kind of distinguished ourselves this year,” Ducharme said. “We’re at a place where we are selling healthier, fresher, local food and enhancing our guests’ experiences. They’re healthier and happier.”