When Glacier National Park closed at the end of March, right when coronavirus lockdowns were gripping the world, outfitters in West Glacier and the Flathead Valley were canceling reservations and received few phone calls for rafting, fishing and trail ride bookings.
Fast forward to June when the park reopened, and Glacier Guides co-owner Denny Gignoux says he received a swarm of phone calls from tourists looking to book a trip.
“We hit the middle of June and then we had a whole flurry of new people call and want to make a reservation,” Gignoux said. “But they wouldn’t call once — they’d call two or three times and they’d want to discuss COVID policies. Our poor office staff was answering to people all the time. It was exhausting.”
The busy summer was a stark contrast to earlier this spring, when nearly 40 gateway businesses ranging from outfitters to banks to park concessionaires wrote a letter to Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow requesting more clarity about the park’s reopening procedures in order to save their businesses.
With a slow spring, busy summer and busier-than-normal fall, outfitters’ revenue is mostly down for the year, but not as much as many thought it would be.
Gignoux booked more bicycle rentals than ever before, but his overnight raft trips were down about 25% by the end of the season.
At Swan Mountain Outfitters, General Manager Aubrie Loroña was preparing for a 50% drop in revenue this season, but she only saw about 30%.
“I think we were pleasantly surprised,” Loroña said. “We were completely down for May and had to cancel guide school and couldn’t run a bear hunt or anything in the park … Those shoulder months matter a lot because those are the months that dictate the season since we are always at capacity in July and August.”
But Loroña was ready for an unpredictable summer once COVID hit. While business owners only had a few days to plan once park officials announced Glacier would reopen in June, Loroña was prepared for changing plans.
“I think it paid off, but it was exhausting,” she said. “I think it took a toll on our people on the front lines of tourism who went above and beyond. Whether it was a restaurant or trip, they had so much extra stuff on their plate to enforce rules and still give customer service.”
At Flathead Lake Charters in Bigfork, fishing guide Todd Noble says he was consistently busy all summer, even before the park opened. While he doesn’t usually start doing trips seven days a week until mid-June, he says it started in early June this year.
Noble says his season wasn’t impacted by the pandemic. The charter company even hired an extra guide and started doing twilight fishing trips so it wouldn’t have to turn as many customers away. It normally run trips through the end of October, but called the season quits at the end of September this year.
“We were all burned out,” he said.
Even though outfitters saw a better season than they had anticipated, the unpredictable season and extra COVID obstacles left managers and staff stressed.
“You’re just praying you make it through each week,” Gignoux said.
But outfitters are also looking forward to next year when they can hopefully return to some sort of normalcy. But both Loroña and Gignoux think many safety measures will remain for the 2021 season. They’re just glad they will be prepared for them this time.
“I’m so thankful it’s over,” Gignoux said. “But I think this is going to be a new normal of sorts.”