Flathead Hotel Industry is ‘Teetering on the Edge’

Skyrocketing demand for rooms and a lack of staff in the valley are straining employees, guests and nonprofits that rely on services while rates continue to spike

By Maggie Dresser
Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell on July 1, 2021. JP Edge | Flathead Beacon

At the Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell, General Manager Raelene Larralde is seeing such a high demand for rooms that June rates were between $200 and $400 a night and she shut down third-party search engines like Expedia because there are hardly any vacancies on the books.

Larralde says June rates don’t usually go beyond $200 a night, and she’s receiving calls every day about vacancies during the weekend of Under the Big Sky Festival on July 17 and July 18, which have been booked for months and rooms sold from anywhere between $500 to $800 a night.

Even with such high demand, Larralde isn’t using 50 out of the 176 rooms at the Red Lion. She doesn’t have the staff to clean them all, so they sit unoccupied until a housekeeper can get to them. Once a room is clean, it’s almost instantly sold to a walk-in customer.

“There’s a very high demand for rooms right now,” Larralde said. “I don’t know that the valley has a lack of rooms, it’s a lack of clean rooms.”

In the 20 years Larralde has been in the hotel and hospitality industry, she has never seen anything like this.

“I’ve been in positions where I’ve been extremely busy before, but I’ve never been in a position when we’re so short-handed,” Larralde said.

At the Travel Lodge in Kalispell, General Manager Becky Walker is trying to avoid selling too many rooms because she doesn’t have the staff either, which is also contributing to the spike in room prices. One-bedrooms are going for more than $300 a night, which are usually in the $100 range this time of year.

“We’re definitely busier and the rates are higher,” Walker said. “The restrictions got lifted and the flood gates opened; everyone’s making up for lost time.”

But the busy hotels aren’t only impacting travelers and exhausted employees. The Abbie Shelter, a service provider for domestic and sexual violence, has been using hotel rooms for several years to provide a safe place for domestic violence survivors to go to outside of the shelter’s office hours.

Abbie Shelter Executive Director Hilary Shaw says they need rooms roughly 10 nights a month, but the lack of vacancies and high rates mean survivors can’t use them.

“We’re at a loss with how to proceed,” Shaw said. “It’s on our radar and we will certainly be able to find solutions for next summer, but this summer we were so surprised that we may need to turn people away.”

Shelter staff members have been working with survivors to brainstorm alternative solutions like coordinating stays with their family members and they are looking to partner with the Samaritan House, the local homeless shelter, to provide temporary solutions.

“It’s a huge setback in summer services,” Shaw said.

Hotel managers aren’t seeing any sign of the demand leveling off this summer. At the Travel Lodge, Walker is apprehensive to book too many rooms because staffing is so uncertain and the hotel is already booked until at least August.

At the Red Lion, Larralde said there hasn’t been an increase in applicants, even after the state ended the federal unemployment program that had provided $300 in extra weekly benefits.

“It’s a crapshoot to see who shows up and who doesn’t,” she said. “We’ve given so many pay increases. We’re just teetering on the edge. The good employees that have been here for a long time are exhausted and the others just come and go.”

“Ninety-five percent of applicants don’t show up for the interview and I had 10 apply and seven of them couldn’t pass a background check,”Larralde added. “It’s as bad as it gets.”

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