BOZEMAN — The Montana entrances to Yellowstone are still closed, but that hasn’t stopped several Big Sky tour companies from teaming up to be ready when those gates do open.
The five tour companies — Big Sky Adventures & Tours, Discover Yellowstone Tours, Yellowstone Scenic Tours, Yellowstone Tour Guide and Yellowstone Touring Company — are normally in competition to get tourists on their vehicles and into the park.
But this year is far from normal.
“It makes more sense for us to work together and put aside competition and make a common plan so people feel safe,” said Andrea Saari, a co-owner and guide with Big Sky Adventures and Tours.
The five companies got together to create a COVID-19 operating plan to submit to the park, a requirement for all commercial business going in and out of Yellowstone. Each company submitted its own copy and, in a memo dated May 17, the park accepted Big Sky Adventures & Tours’ operating plan.
“We took that template that was sent to us by the park service that had to be approved and we created common answers and tried to brainstorm and talk through potential scenarios and situations that might arise and how we would deal with it,” Saari said.
The plan states that, in addition to always-available hand sanitizer and frequent sanitization of equipment, the companies will only be accepting tour groups of people already traveling together, like families. Tour groups will also be asked to fill out a self-assessment tool with any symptoms of sickness they may have and will have their temperatures taken before the tour during a safety briefing.
The companies will also log information that might be helpful in contact tracing in the case of a guest or guide testing positive after a tour.
Saari said that a lot of business for tour companies comes by way of referrals from hotel front desks and concierge services, and having one set of guidelines for all five companies will make that information easier to keep track of and share with guests and potential customers. She also didn’t want to confuse guests, who might be getting information from several companies before deciding which one to book.
Yellowstone has its own set of rules for tour companies to abide by during its phased opening, including keeping groups to 10 or fewer, counting guides.
Saari said she’s thankful that the park shares what information it has, but that it’s been tough not knowing exactly when the Montana entrances will open.
“It’s kind of frustrating to watch Jackson and Cody be able to open and we still don’t know when Montana’s going to open,” Saari said. “It’s just so important for everybody to work together so we do create safe travel opportunities, because people have been cooped up and national parks are a great place to get away and be socially distanced outside.”