21-09-03 Limelight check-in 1.jpg

Jonathan Neeley greets Joe and Leslie Guerrero of West Palm Beach, Florida, as they check into the Limelight Hotel in Ketchum on Wednesday, Sept. 1.

Wood River Valley hotels have rebounded well this summer after a difficult year in 2020 that saw the COVID-19 pandemic slow travel and tourism considerably, statistics compiled by the marketing organization Visit Sun Valley indicate.

From May through July of this year, lodging occupancy in the Wood River Valley was up significantly over the same months in 2020 and up small margins over the pre-pandemic summer of 2019. The numbers for August—which have not yet been processed—also look good so far, as do advance bookings for the upcoming Labor Day weekend and parts of September and October, said Scott Fortner, executive director of Visit Sun Valley.

“It does appear that this year is outpacing 2019,” Fortner said.

In May, a large number of travelers booked lodging for stays in June through September, Fortner said. A solid number of travelers also visited the area that month, continuing the trend of the traditional fall and spring “slack” months getting busier.

Occupancy at valley lodging properties was 29% in May, compared to only about 2% in May 2020, when COVID-19 was stifling travel. However, the figure was up 36% over May 2019, Visit Sun Valley data show.

In June, the area’s occupancy rate of approximately 52% was 81% higher than 2020 and 9% over 2019. In July, the paid occupancy rate of approximately 70% was 25% better than 2020 and 3% above the number from July 2019.

The data reported by Visit Sun Valley is gathered from 10 professionally managed lodging properties and averaged to provide a statistical representation of business.

Local-option tax receipts in Ketchum—another indicator of tourism and travel activity—have been strong in 2021, too. In June, businesses in the city collected more than $313,000 from the taxes, significantly higher than June receipts from any of the previous six years.

The city collects a 3% LOT on room sales (including both hotel rooms and short-term rentals), a 3% LOT on by-the-drink liquor sales, and a 2% LOT on general retail sales and building materials.

Looking forward, bookings for the fall are up significantly over last year, Fortner said, though many travelers made last-minute reservations last fall that ultimately propped up the numbers. August and September will likely outpace the same months in 2019, he said.

Last year, amid uncertainty about COVID-19 and the safety of travel, many booked rooms late, often within five days of their departure, Fortner said. This year, travelers have returned to making hotel reservations 30-90 days out, he said.

Analysis and surveys indicate that the Sun Valley area has attracted numerous regional travelers from Twin Falls, Boise and Salt Lake City, Fortner said. Travel and tourism linked to weddings has been very strong this summer, he said, though a modest rebound in corporate travel has started to slow again, as COVID-19 cases have surged again across the country.

“It looks like that kind of business is on a pause,” Fortner said.

Wildfire smoke has prompted a few visitors to shorten their stays after arrival, he said.

The broader outlook for the fall and winter is a “mixed bag,” Fortner said, leaving him “cautiously optimistic.” Inquiries and lodging reservations show strong interest in periods around major holidays, he said, though not nearly as much for other periods. Business travel looks “a little soft,” he said, and concern about the highly transmissible delta variant of COVID-19 seems to be affecting travel trends.

“Obviously, snow can change that pattern,” Fortner said. “Skiers are going to ski.”

Another factor is the ongoing local and national staffing shortage, Fortner said. Travelers who do not adjust their expectations of service, operating hours and operating days—all of which have been limited by labor shortages—could be disappointed.

Data compiled by the Vermont-based firm DestiMetrics indicate that on July 31 winter reservations through January at 18 Western mountain resorts were up 72% over last year. Through July, the numbers were up more than 5% over 2019.

With the threat of COVID-19 lingering on the horizon, Fortner said he is still generally positive. The pandemic has fostered cooperation and communication among business operators, he said, and visitors have had good things to say about the Sun Valley area.

“People are having a good time,” Fortner said. “They’re having a good experience.”

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