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Visit Sun Valley sees “opportunities” for the area in a landscape reshaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed tourism and the economy of the Wood River Valley, but business operators are adapting and the outlook for the winter remains cautiously positive, a panel of area business and marketing experts said Monday.

In the opening discussion of nonprofit organization Sun Valley Economic Development’s 2020 Economic Summit, staff of Visit Sun Valley—the destination marketing organization for Ketchum, Sun Valley and the surrounding area—used a variety of analytics to assess the tourism and visitation market over the past summer and how it might develop during the region’s upcoming ski season.

Several factors that have developed over the fall have benefited the Wood River Valley tourism market going forward, they said, from a No. 1 ranking for Sun Valley in SKI magazine’s annual list of top ski resorts to retention of commercial air service accessing several key U.S. markets. In what was called “the new world of COVID,” Visit Sun Valley is adjusting its marketing efforts to attract an evolved set of travelers with different goals and expectations than in the past, they said.

“We do see opportunities moving forward,” said Scott Fortner, executive director of Visit Sun Valley.

The annual Economic Summit itself has also been impacted by the pandemic. The three-day conference, which concludes Nov. 11, is being conducted virtually, with “attendees” watching speakers and presenters based at the Limelight Hotel in Ketchum through a video feed.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic last winter had a sudden impact on the region’s economy, Fortner said, but the summer brought evidence of a new trend in tourism: an exodus of “COVID refugees” flocking to mountain resorts and other remote destinations to escape the coronavirus pandemic.

“Summer, I think, was a big surprise for all of us,” he said.

In the summer months, crowds did come, and spending did help offset some of the losses incurred last winter and spring, but the season was still not as strong as previous years, panelists said. Visit Sun Valley focused on marketing to second-home owners, wellness seekers, mountain bikers, people in regional “drive markets” and some key markets with air service to Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey.

In marketing, Visit Sun Valley had to consider how the pandemic had affected travelers’ behaviors, Fortner said. Many travelers aren’t coming to Sun Valley for a specific event such as a wedding or business conference, he said, and fewer are taking the short four-day family vacation. Travelers—many of whom are looking for “new experiences” and improvements in lifestyle—are booking trips later and staying longer than in the past, he said. Many are driving instead of flying. With remote work as an option, many travelers and second-home owners stayed for weeks, or even months, not days, and some bought real estate.

Notable highlights of analysis of the summer tourism season include:

Revenues from local-option taxes in Ketchum were down 11 percent from May to August, compared to the previous year.

Room nights sold were down 34 percent from May to September, with September showing much stronger bookings than May.

Enplanements at Friedman were down 72 percent from May to September. However, commercial air service to Seattle, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver and Chicago has been maintained, despite significant losses in the industry.

Traffic counts north of Ketchum were up 21 percent from May to September.

Harry Griffith, executive director of Sun Valley Economic Development, said the pandemic and changing economic landscape helped some sectors of the Wood River Valley economy over the summer and hurt others.

Griffith said:

Sun Valley Economic Development has recorded three COVID-related business closings.

The sports retail sector “did very well,” while restaurants and some other retail sectors were hurt.

Unemployment has gone down, though some workers who did not lose jobs still lost pay from decreased hours.

The real estate market experienced “record sales.” The median sales price of a house in the local market rose to $660,000, a 39 percent year-over-year increase. Sales volume, calculated in monetary value, rose 53 percent, compared to last year.

Evidence suggests that many people who bought real estate are part-time residents. “What we’re seeing is the first wave of people relocating,” Griffith said. “… Will there be a second wave?”

A survey of business operators indicated that 55 percent said business performance was worse than previous years, 12 percent characterized it as the same, 22 percent said it was better and 11 percent did not fit into a category. Most businesses made it through the summer, Griffith said, but the looming question is, “What does winter look like?”

People buying real estate and relocating to the Wood River Valley can help boost the local economy, Fortner said, bringing dollars to businesses all year long, helping to flatten out the peaks and valleys of the seasonal economy. However, the trend can also drive up home prices and shrink the rental pool, making it more difficult for working-class residents to maintain housing. At the same time, second-home owners play a key role in the economy.

“Second-home owners have kind of been a core for us and will continue to be,” Fortner said.

Ray Gadd, marketing director for Visit Sun Valley, said several factors have aligned to boost the winter tourism season in the Wood River Valley. In addition to the No. 1 SKI magazine ranking and retention of air service, the economy could benefit from an expansion of terrain at Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain ski area, “pent-up” demand for travel, Sun Valley’s partnership in the Epic Pass network of ski areas and the resort’s decision not to require advance reservations to ski, like some other destinations.

In addition, Gadd said, Nordic skiing and backcountry skiing—a strong suit in the region’s offerings—are becoming increasingly popular. Sales of Nordic skiing gear are up, he said, and the Blaine County Recreation District has reported a 33 percent increase in pass sales for its winter trails system. Sun Valley Resort pass sales are up, too, Gadd noted, and the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation has reported a 30 percent increase in athlete enrollment in its programs.

Galena Lodge, north of Ketchum, and Rotarun ski area, west of Hailey, will be open this winter, Gadd noted. Hotel bookings for December are parallel to last year, he said, noting that the organization hopes slow bookings for the rest of the winter “fill in” as time passes.

In marketing for the winter, Visit Sun Valley is targeting specific groups—which include adventure travelers, families, repeat visitors and new visitors—through a variety of channels. The organization will seek to reach travelers through media and websites that include YouTube, Facebook, Expedia, Tripadvisor and the Matador Network. Part of the messaging includes the slogan “Nowhere is everything.”

Griffith said many businesses his organization surveyed are not optimistic about the winter season but most have cash reserves and operating plans to “get through the winter.”

What hasn’t changed amid the COVID pandemic, Fortner noted, is the importance of tourism to the Wood River Valley economy. In 2017, he said, the industry accounted for $308 million in spending, the collection of $29.5 million in tax revenue and 5,300 jobs—25 percent of the jobs in Blaine County.

“The impact of travel strengthens our community’s economic position,” he said.

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