Summer 2019: Cool Weather, Hot Business

More rain and less smoke driving visitors to local businesses, as the 2019 summer season starts to phase out

By Molly Priddy
Travelers exit Glacier Park International Airport on July 19, 2019. Beacon File Photo

Summer isn’t quite over, though the nights are getting chillier and the days are getting shorter. With September still ahead, the tourist season continues to move forward, but the season’s busiest months indicate that summer 2019 will be a big one for the Flathead Valley.

Instead of wildfire smoke plumes filling the sky and darkening the sun, the valley saw rain nearly every week — according to the National Weather Service, July saw 14 days with measurable precipitation.

The cooler weather certainly didn’t chill tourism activity: Businesses had some their busiest stretches ever, occupancy rates at local hotels were up, and the airport increased already record-breaking passenger numbers by 25 percent.

“I’m pretty sure (a couple weeks ago) was close to the busiest week we’ve ever had,” said Andy Maetzold, chef at the Buffalo Café in Whitefish. “It’s been a busy summer, but (two weeks ago) specifically was really for us weather dependent.”

Maetzold said the summer rush hasn’t been overwhelming in the sense that they can’t handle the crowds or the crush, but rather that the stream of people flowing into the restaurant has been ever-steady since April.

“It didn’t feel any busier than it usually is, it’s just that there’s no break in it. I’d look up at 2 p.m. when we close and we’d have to turn people away at the door,” he said. “Typically in August it’s hot and sunny; this happened to be a random cold and rainy three days that were already going to be busy no matter what.”

Jandy Cox, owner at Rocky Mountain Outfitter in Kalispell, said July was the shop’s busiest July on record, even if it only broke the record by a little bit.

“July was our busiest July on record, it’s been pretty steady, and definitely busier when it’s raining,” Cox said.

Traffic in Kalispell has been great, he said, and even though Glacier National Park visitation is down about 3 percent this summer from last year, that’s 3 percent off of massively record-breaking years. July’s visitors brought the year total to 1,806,913, down 3.2 percent from July 2018, but still more than 600,000 people than this time in 2009.

It’s been so busy that Cox said they’ve not felt the impact of REI opening, when stores in similar positions warned that RMO would likely see about a 20 percent drop in business.

“It just hasn’t been a factor,” Cox said.

At Glacier Park International Airport, passenger numbers are sky high, and Airport Director Rob Ratkowski said the airport coordinated closely with all the airlines flying in and out of here to make the schedule work while the airport heads toward a major expansion.

“It was the busiest summer in the history of the airport,” Ratkowski said.

July 2019 saw 60,470 passengers get on planes and 60,041 passengers arrive at GPIA, for a total of 120,511 people in the airport all month. Last year, July’s total was 97,149, meaning 2019 had an increase of 25.3 percent.

That increase is largely due to airlines sending bigger planes on these routes, Ratkowski said, but the numbers don’t account for empty seats — all the planes are 90 to 95 percent full.

On Big Mountain, Whitefish Mountain Resort had major increases in mountain bike ridership, according to WMR spokesperson Riley Polumbus. Last year, the mountain had 8,849 biking visitors.

“This year we’re tracking ahead of last year, up 12 percent,” Polumbus said.

And the unfinished 2019 season has already outpaced all of 2017.

“We just keep adding to the bike park and we’re doing a good job with it, the trails are in good shape, we’re getting a really good reputation,” she said.

Hotel occupancy numbers are mostly up from 2018, and the representatives from local convention and visitors bureaus said the valley is still trying to figure out how to effectively count short-term rental stays to go along with the increase in hotel rooms.

“July was up, which is saying a lot for Whitefish and Kalispell, considering all the additional inventory we have,” said Diane Medler of the Kalispell Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There are so many choices now of where to stay that some months we see that variable play out. July was super strong, and we’ll see what August holds.”

Dylan Boyle of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau said Whitefish hotel occupancy was up 6 percent in July, and April and May also increased by 7 percent. June had a minor decrease of 3 percent, Boyle said, but the average daily rate paid for hotel rooms was up from last year so it mostly evened out.

“Because of the increase in supply, really there had been a drop in rate which is difficult for business owners and also doesn’t really demonstrate the value we have in our product,” Boyle said.

Maetzold, with Buffalo Café, said most people he’s spoken with in the service industry think the summer’s weather was great, especially when compared to fire seasons.

“It wasn’t super hot, it wasn’t super cold, and it hasn’t gotten smoky yet,” he said. “I’d be surprised if people had a not-great summer, business-wise.”