- Tourism is a big part of the local economy in Jackson, Wyoming.
- Business Insider spoke to a variety of hospitality leaders in the town to find out how they are weathering the pandemic — and how they are preparing for the summer season.
- Restaurant owners expressed gratitude to locals for keeping them afloat during lockdown.
- Hotel owners, meanwhile, are looking ahead to domestic road trippers as the core of their business through the summer.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Jackson, Wy. — With the white-capped Teton Mountain range rising up in the distance, a road trip to Jackson Hole feels a bit like stumbling onto a lost world.
The city of Jackson, population 10,000, is the main town in Jackson Hole. It has a clear advantage when it comes to drawing tourists: It is the gateway to not only Grand Teton National Park, but also to Yellowstone National Park, its sulfur-laced cousin. A swell of nearly 2.6 million tourists flood Jackson each year. In the winter, there’s skiing at the area’s three ski resorts, sledding, snowshoeing, and dog-sledding tours to choose from. In the summer, there’s hiking, biking, and sights at the national parks.
Tourism is key to the local economy. According to the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, tourists spent approximately $1.24 billion in the 2018-2019 tourism season and created 8,950 tourism-related jobs, accounting for 27% of Teton County’s private industry employment.
But this year, the restrictions associated with the global coronavirus pandemic are fostering anxiety for businesses about summer tourism.
Options trading ‘Stay safe and stay home’
The messaging of Jackson Hole’s tourism board, which usually urges visitors to “stay wild,” has shifted to “stay safe and stay home.”
Anna Olson, president and CEO of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, told Business Insider that city officials took a “proactive start” in shutting down businesses, ski resorts, and properties early on in the pandemic. On March 30, the county and city employed a stay at home order. While the official mandate expired on April 30, tourists were told to self-quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. That order expired May 8.
As of this article’s publication, seven COVID-19 deaths have been reported in Wyoming, a state of approximately 579,000 people. One of those deaths is in Teton County, where Jackson is located. While the area is not a hotbed of virus activity, an influx of tourists could change that, and the city’s only hospital — St. John’s Hospital — is not equipped to handle a breakout.
While keeping tourists away from the town may help keep the virus contained, such a decision stands to take a toll on businesses.
“Eighty percent of our town budget … is from sales and use [tax] and lodging tax,” Olson said. “They are the only two sources of major income within our community.”
For now, many hotels are entering a new phase. Business Insider spoke to five restaurant and hotel owners in the town of Jackson to understand how they’re preparing for a summer season without knowing what, exactly, lies ahead.
Options trading Hotels are reopening with an eye on domestic road trippers
Sadek Darwiche is the general manager of Hotel Jackson, a locally owned boutique hotel where rooms start around $630. He told Business Insider that the hotel, which was founded by his family, has had to make several abrupt pivots recently.
“We basically went from being very busy to completely shutting down in a very short period of time and then … to refunding,” said Darwiche.
The hotel and its FIGS restaurant, which serves Lebanese-Mediterranean cuisine, is in the center of Jackson, just a block from the famous elk antler arches in the town square. FIGS is currently serving curbside.
The hotel also reopened recently, said Darwiche, with the hope of getting “back into the groove of things” and bringing back frontline staff before receiving new reservations. They are deep-cleaning rooms to prepare for the upcoming demand, which they anticipate to be a significant “drive and regional market.”
With some bookings beginning to show up in the short term and some for late summer, the “big unknown” is the time between for Darwiche. “We’re certainly well below our pace for what we had done last year and where we think we’d like to be, so it’s a little scary, quite honestly.”
Despite that fear, Darwiche said he remains “cautiously optimistic.”
A couple blocks away, Anvil Hotel — a boutique hotel inspired by the American west, with rooms starting around $240 — is also working to meet the COVID-19 era head on. “Effectively, the business is non-existent right now,” said Erik Warner, owner of Anvil Hotel and cofounder of Eagle Point Hotel Partners and Sightline Hospitality.
“We are hoping that restrictions are eased nationally and locally to such an extent [that] travelers feel comfortable booking hotel rooms and tables at restaurants,” Warner told Business Insider. Anticipating “pent up demand,” he said he’s bringing back his teams at both the hotel and restaurant for Memorial Day weekend.
To do this, he said they’re operating on “the new norm,” which includes instituting social-distancing rules and only accepting reservations at their Italian restaurant, Glorietta. Warner also said they are becoming entirely contactless. Guests, he said, will be allowed to “check-in online, access their room without going to the front desk, communicate via text or FaceTime any of their needs at any time, order room service, and check-out.” This is partly possible, he noted, because they were formerly a motel, leaving all rooms accessible from the outside.
Like Darwiche, Warner is anticipating seeing domestic road-trippers at his hotel this summer: “I think there is going to be an onslaught of travelers to the area from not only the region but all over the country.”
Further to the south at the base of Snow King Mountain, a similar story unfolds.
With luxury condos for long-term stays and rooms and suites starting around $220, the Benchmark-managed Snow King Resort is popular with the skiing crowd. This year, though, the resort had to temporarily close its door on March 20. Gregg Fracassa, the resort’s general manager, described the lasting effects COVID-19 has had on the business.
“We have lost a majority of our group business for the year and will need to rely on short-term transient demand to help keep our team employed,” Fracassa told Business Insider.
Fracassa said the resort plans to reopen on May 21 and that some “key employees” are being brought back.
Snow King Resort plans to progressively reopen rooms in its north and south wings. They are implementing new policies and sanitizing procedures. “Our dining room will be open and outdoor patios open, but with state-standard social distancing standards and guidelines,” said Fracassa. “We will offer food and beverage service to the rooms in the form of a market bag left at the door, as well as pick up and grab ‘n go options.”
In the meantime, they are working to rebook guests who had to cancel and waiving penalties.
As for his outlook on the future, Fracassa believes the phased reopening of the national parks will attract road-trippers. “This area of the country is breathtakingly beautiful,” he said, “and I believe [it] will provide a much-needed getaway and therapeutic escape to nature for many people, providing a perfect change of scenery with wide open spaces.”
Options trading Restaurants are reinventing themselves
Where many of Jackson’s hoteliers pointed to domestic road trippers as their biggest potential source of business this summer, the restaurant staff Business Insider spoke to highlighted the Jackson locals as the force that has helped them stay open thus far.
Blue Collar Restaurant Group is a family-run Jackson Hole collection of restaurants, which includes the popular Liberty Burger, a block from the Jackson town square. As group spokesperson — and daughter of owners Denise and Joe Rice — Nicole Davis told Business Insider, “We are looking at numbers that are 80% lower than our normal business numbers.”
Davis said that the group’s Jackson restaurants are now operating on a limited service, offering curbside pickup and delivery through Uber Eats.
“The locals are our bread and butter,” Davis added. “We wouldn’t survive without them.”
She noted that many local businesses have been buying gift cards from restaurants to give to hospital workers. “We also have local businesses that will call and give us $100 and say take $10 off the first 10 orders placed tomorrow,” said Davis.
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For now, they are waiting on a green light to open.
A little further to the south in Jackson is the James Beard semi-finalist, Persephone Bakery. The bakery, which normally has a packed indoor seating area and a bustling outdoor deck, is navigating its many restrictions.
“We have closed two of our three locations,” said Ali Cohane, who co-owns Persephone’s two locations and a restaurant called Picnic with her husband. Slow business meant only one Persephone could remain open. The pandemic has also disrupted plans for a new fine dining restaurant.
Like other restaurants, they shifted to curbside pickup and delivery. It proved to be a move for which, thanks to the high seasonal demand they usually see, they were already prepared.
“We get so busy in the summer that we try not to alienate our local customers,” said Cohane. Locals are already used to ordering by app to avoid the lines.
Cohane hopes to reopen by May 15 — but even that won’t come without its own challenges. “At our opening we’re going to have to decrease our occupancy by 50% by taking out tables for social distancing,” she said.
“Jackson is tough,” Cohane said. “I mean, our rents are very high.” High summer sales, she added, are what “gets us through the rest of the year.”
Options trading The brink of stabilization
While the future in Jackson, as in much of the U.S., is unclear, hope persists. One of the big unknowns at this point is what, exactly, the summer season is going to look like.
“What we don’t know right now, to be honest, is demand,” said Olson, who expects travel to start regionally first. “We know that the National Park product is very desirable to the domestic market.”
In the meantime, the city is engaging its emergency planning services. Jackson is located in an area that could have forest fires or avalanches, Olson said, and because of that, the city has to have strong emergency planning. Olson noted that the city is coordinating a large order of gloves, masks, and thermometers on behalf of local businesses.
“We had the urgent phase, we had the stabilization phase, and then the recovery,” said Olson. “We are on the brink of stabilization as we see it.”
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