Rooms Are There, But Will the People Be?

By Beacon Staff

The busy summer season is over and hotel operators have time to breathe deeply and look to the future – an ambiguous future that now includes the weighty presence of a Holiday Inn Express and Hilton Garden Inn, with another Hilton in the making.

The question for hotel operators is whether Kalispell can support all of these hotels. If more pop up, will some hotels get pushed out? Hotel operators differ in their opinions, but they agree that it’s an intriguing time for the area’s lodging economy.

Grimm Storli, part owner and general manager of Blue and White Motel, thinks Kalispell has reached its lodging capacity, and the Hilton on North U.S. 93 isn’t even completed yet.

“As far as tourism goes, we’ve probably got as many rooms as we can keep making money at (in Kalispell),” he said.

At the very least, said Brian Scott, CEO and president of Outlaw Inn, Kalispell shouldn’t need any hotels for a while.

“I believe if we’re not to capacity,” he said, “we’re close to approaching capacity. I worry about the ability to fill these places.”

Even with the two new hotels, Kalispell’s lodging businesses maintained full or near full capacity all summer. Storli warned, however, that summer is not the best indication of a hotel’s potential. It’s the high season and hotels are always full.

Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, agreed, saying it’s too early to make any conclusions about capacity. He also pointed out that this summer firefighters played a large role in filling hotels.

“You almost can’t have enough capacity in June, July, August, September,” Unterreiner said. “I don’t think it’s known what the capacity is. Whatever we have is filled up during those times.”

“The trick is,” he added, “can we get filled up later?”

Jenny Billsborough, assistant manager at La Quinta, is more optimistic than Storli and Scott. She said she didn’t feel any negative effect of having two new big hotels in town. In fact, when her hotel was full, she sent some customers to the Hilton and Holiday Inn. She expects that trend to continue, if not improve.

“I don’t think we’ve hit our max,” she said. “Every year more people are coming in.”

Billsborough said the stretch of U.S. Highway 2 between Kalispell and Columbia Falls could actually use more hotels. Hers is the only one near Glacier International Airport. Also, that stretch is the main passageway between Kalispell and Glacier National Park. Billsborough also points to her hotel’s plans to add 30 more rooms to the current 71 as evidence that Kalispell’s lodging economy has space to grow.

The Hilton, which was busy throughout the summer, is designed to be able to weather the off and shoulder seasons, said the hotel’s general manager, Jay Wildgen. The hotel has an 8,600-square-foot ballroom to hold large events and conferences.

This summer the Hilton hosted a statewide business conference. Unterreiner, who helped organize the conference, said 325 people were registered, far exceeding the 144-room capacity at the hotel. Many of the room-less spilled over into other hotels, like the neighboring Aero Inn, Unterreiner said. In that way, the Hilton helped other hotels.

At the same time, Storli reminds, when the tourist season is slow, the Hilton and Holiday Inn will provide noticeable competition to area hotels that share the same client base. Hotels like his, however, won’t be affected “one way or the other.”

“Our clientele is mostly salesmen, truck drivers,” he said.

The Outlaw Inn shares some of the same clientele as the Hilton and Holiday Inn. Scott said the effects on his business have been minimal because, once again, the summer season brings enough tourists to provide for everyone. But he’ll have to see what happens this fall and winter.

“We’re still 12 months out before we can see how it will affect the marketplace,” he said.