Park City Hospitality Industry Battered by Covid, Drought

Park City tourism, battered by international Covid-19 travel restrictions and cancellation of the Sundance Film Festival, can’t catch a break.

The most recent Park City Daily Occupancy Report from the Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau shows that as of Dec. 31, 2020, hotels, resorts, and units managed by property companies were only 33 % occupied. That figure represents just about half of what is normal for winter.

“It gives a very dire look at things, but there are many other components to keep in mind,” said Jennifer Wesselhoff, president and CEO of the Park City Chamber of Commerce. “We’re hoping we can shore that up.”

The units represented in the report represent about 55 % of all available rentals in Park City. Excluded from those numbers are occupancy rates for Airbnb, VRBO, Homeaway and some smaller individually-owned properties that don’t participate in this data collection.

Wesselhoff said that since the pandemic began, historic travel booking patterns have fundamentally changed. Most travelers used to make reservations six months in advance, but that’s evolved into reservations being made during the same month, or even week, of travel. So she’s hopeful that last-minute visitors will erase some of the deficit.

She pointed to the last couple of months as examples: November started out looking extremely sparse but ended only 14 % off normal levels. December began with a dismal amount of reservations, but ended 23 % lower than normal.

“I never thought I would be thrilled to be only 25 % down, but in reality it could have been a lot worse,” she said.

However, current drought conditions here may mean that people traveling on short notice may head to snowier resort areas, leaving hotels and resorts here empty. And empty hotel rooms mean empty restaurants, bars and shops, causing a ripple effect across sectors.

Normally, Park City could count on Sundance riding in to rescue the town in dry winters. The Sundance Institute estimates that about 45,000 out-of-state visitors typically stay in Park City during the festival, so this year’s all-virtual format is a major blow.

“Can we overcome that much? It’s impossible,” she said. “That’s why we love Sundance. We can’t overcome that gap through leisure travelers.”

The chamber is looking ahead with hope, planning for a summer that may see a return to more normal activity levels. Shorter term, its resources are focused on local business safety and recovery efforts, and marketing to people who live within a 600-mile radius of Park City.

Wesselhoff said current challenges can allow residents to examine just how integral tourism is to the local economy.

“What Covid is showing us is our reliance on tourism, which is critical to the quality of life here that we expect as residents,” she said. “Thousands of people rely on tourism for their livelihoods. This is helping us recognize tourism is the foundation, but we have opportunities to diversify our economy.”

As an example, she suggested businesses look at what they spend outside Park City in categories like linen services, building supplies, public relations and other business-to-business relationships, and see what can be done to produce and provide those things within the community. Entrepreneurship could play a valuable role in this respect by diversifying and strengthening Park City’s economy, she said.

For those less entrepreneurially inclined, there is an easy way to help: “Shopping locally is critical,” Wesselhoff said. “Keeping our money here will ultimately help all of us in the long run.”

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