Business Monthly

Outfitters Report a ‘Relaxed’ Summer Season

Local outdoor companies report a softer season compared to recent years and say the pandemic-triggered tourism boom is over

By Maggie Dresser
A Glacier Raft Company boat floats down the Middle Fork in West Glacier on July 23, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Whitefish Outfitters and Tours owner Kurt Schram first started noticing a softening demand in business last fall as the busy summer tourism season began winding down. The pandemic-triggered peak travel years in 2020 and 2021 saw high demand – even during the shoulder seasons – but by October 2022, bookings and rentals were slower.

“Following a busy summer, the economy just caught up,” Schram said. “The cost of airfare and lodging cut out a lot of budget travelers … We saw things really fall of a cliff in October and we didn’t see it bounce back until December.”

Schram offers hiking and cycling tours in Glacier National Park and the Flathead National Forest, e-bike and stand-up paddle board rentals and more during the summer at his outfitting shop in Whitefish. He’s still seeing steady business, but he says the dramatic growth over the past few years is over.

Instead, Schram is getting last-minute bookings for hiking and biking trips and e-bike rental cancelations after the Going-to-the-Sun Road opened to vehicles early on June 13.

E-bikes parked at Glacier Guides and Montana Raft in West Glacier on Sept. 16, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Schram is one of many outfitters in the Flathead Valley who are experiencing a similar trend – the pandemic tourism boom has subsided.

Julie Mullins, the executive director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau, also known as Explore Whitefish, says outfitters and retail shop owners in the area are experiencing a noticeable decline in demand this summer.

“The covid bubble has definitely lifted,” Mullins said. “It’s going to be a softer summer. Overall, this spring was down for businesses – they were really hoping the summer was going to be strong, but they are finding it flat.”

Mullins attributes the slower season to inflation, Glacier Park’s recently implemented vehicle reservation system, and the return of international travel.

At Lakestream Fly Shop in Whitefish, Justin Lawrence says business has returned to 2019 trends and while guides are still busy, the spring has been slower compared to the last few years.

Lawrence’s guided fishing packages include trips down the Flathead River, the Missouri River, the lower Clark Fork and the Blackfoot rivers. Despite a historically low water year in northwest Montana, he said his trips haven’t been impacted.

“Our bookings are strong through the middle of September,” Lawrence said.

As of June 30, water levels were way below average in Northwest Montana’s water basins, according to United States Department of Agriculture data.

Meanwhile on Flathead Lake, historically low water levels could mean a shortened season for marina owners, who may be forced to pull their boats out of the water as the lake level drops.

As of June 28, water levels were 9 inches below the dam-controlled lake’s full-pool mark and a foot below the 23-year median.

In Glacier, spokesperson Gina Icenoggle says the vehicle reservation system is in lower demand this summer – although she acknowledged the system changed this year after the National Park Service requested they try a new method that was consistent with other parks.

In the first two years, the reservation system was on a rolling basis, where users would log into the system 24 hours in advance to book a reservation.

A bicyclist ascends Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park on June 19, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

But this year, vehicle reservations are available through two types of booking windows. A portion of reservations are available four months in advance, using a block-release system for Going-to-the-Sun Road, North Fork, Two Medicine and Many Glacier entrances. Like last year, there’s still a portion of reservations available on a rolling basis at 8 a.m. 24 hours in advance.

The new system is a pilot program this year, and Icenoggle said a civic engagement period will begin at the end of the summer to help determine if the park will continue with the system.

At Glacier Guides, Denny Gignoux said that while business is slower this summer, he notices that his customers and staff are much more at ease than they were in recent years.

Gignoux compares this summer to 2018 and 2019 and despite low water levels, spirits at the company are higher than in years past. His employees are working consistently because they aren’t going into covid quarantine anymore and he said everyone is happy to be there.

“I think people are excited that the pandemic is over,” Gignoux said. “It’s a lot of fun seeing families coming out.”

“Everybody is just relaxed,” he added.

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