Kalispell Sees Gradual Rise in Flights, Hotel Stays

Travel to the Flathead is expected to increase after the 14-day quarantine lifts on June 1

By Maggie Dresser
Travelers wait by the baggage claim at Glacier Park International Airport on July 19, 2019. Beacon File Photo

Ever since Montana’s stay-at-home order expired on April 24, Glacier Park International Airport Director Rob Ratkowski has noticed a gradual rise in travelers as summer approaches.

With an all-time low of 21 passengers on April 18, Ratkowski says he’s seeing an average of 76 people daily this month, with 133 on Saturday, May 16.

“Those are the largest numbers that we’ve put up since March 24,” Ratkowski said.

The airport saw a total of 1,802 passengers this April, compared to 32,775 in April of 2019.

Now that the 14-day quarantine is set to lift on June 1, Ratkowski expects the airport’s numbers to gradually increase, especially with Montana’s low coronavirus case numbers. He says the Montana National Guard also plans to leave the airport once the quarantine is lifted, where they’ve been screening passengers for coronavirus symptoms since early April.

“With the stay-at-home order expiring, people are now able to move around more,” Ratkowski said. “I think we are seeing people who own second homes here and there is still demand to come here just because of the nature of the area … With very low cases in the state, it makes us an attractive place to be.”

As of May 19, the airport was limited to just three flights, which include Salt Lake City, Denver and Seattle. Ratkowski says the airport will gradually add flights throughout the summer as needed.

Hotel occupancy in April was down by 54% compared to last year, according to Discover Kalispell Director Diane Medler.

“Hotels are taking a big hit,” she said.

While many business meetings canceled events at local hotels in Kalispell, Medler says Discover Kalispell was able to rebook 80% of those meetings for later in the fall or 2021, which accounted for 3,185 room nights booked. Through Discover Kalispell’s sales efforts, business events ranging from conferences to military reunions accounted for 2,847 room nights and $286,201 in 2018 and 2019.

Kalispell also suffered a significant tourism loss this May after the Montana Spartan Race was canceled, which draws around 8,000 people to the area, with 65% from out-of-state.

At Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell, Director of Operations Ben Heese says he’s seen low reservation rates since the pandemic began, but he’s noticed a gradual rise in reservations of about 50% in the week following May 11, although the occupancy rate during the week of May 18 was still only about 17%, which was at 60% last year at this time.

While he’s noticed a significant number of truck drivers occupying rooms in recent weeks, he’s also seen a few customers who are staying in the hotel while their homes are being built in the area.

In addition to out-of-state occupants, Heese has also seen an influx of locals renting rooms right after they opened the hotel pool. While the pool is operating at half capacity, he says there are usually three to five swimmers at any given time.

“We think it’s gonna be a good June,” Heese said. “People are starting to come in, and we’ll see how many people still want to go to Glacier National Park.”

Medler says reopening Glacier is a key component in determining Kalispell’s tourism this summer, and with more than 11,000 tourism-related jobs in Flathead County, reopening the park is crucial for the area’s labor force.

“Because of the number of jobs that are related to travel, restoring travel is really important to restoring our local economy,” Medler said. “We really want to open and move through this opening plan responsibly, and the health of our community is of utmost importance.”

Medler is encouraging locals to support tourism-reliant businesses in their home state, like fishing guides and resorts, that many might not have otherwise taken advantage of in the past.

David Steele of Rocky Mountain Outfitter in Kalispell says the shop has experienced a fair amount of local business at the shop, but he’s seen fewer tourists than he typically does this time of year.

“Our community has come through for us so well,” he said. “We’re a small-time store and we’ve been here a long time, and we really owe it to (them).”

Once the 14-day quarantine is lifted, Medler expects more out-of-state travelers in the area, but consumer confidence is still uncertain, even as restrictions across the country are lifted.

“Travelers are still leery,” she said. “Leery about getting on a plane, leery about traveling.”


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