By Don Nelson
Joe Marver, owner of Twisp River Suites, offered something of a perspective check on the dismal slump in tourism business that slammed the entire valley the past couple of weeks thanks to widespread news of fires, road closures, evacuations, unhealthy air and the tragic deaths of three firefighters.
“We didn’t lose anything but business,” Marver said reflectively.
But throughout the Methow, a lot of business was lost as the towns emptied out, the North Cascades Highway remained closed, the air turned dangerous and media reports — for the most part accurate, if a bit breathless — focused on the resulting dearth of visitors.
All of which was distressingly familiar to a tourism-dependent business community that took a body blow in 2014 when the Carlton Complex Fire resulted in closed roads, a lengthy power outage and dramatic images of a place seemingly consumed by flames. This year: Different circumstances, all-too-similar outcome.
“Honestly, I had to tell them [potential visitors], ‘don’t come.’ I had to tell the truth,” Marver said. But Marver, whose hotel had almost no occupants this week, echoed a common refrain among local businesses this week: “All we can do is start up again.”
This weekend — including Labor Day — is “looking good,” Marver said, and the weekend after that looks even better.
Even those who can’t get to the Methow can help. To generate support for valley businesses, the Methow Conservancy has resurrected its “Spend a Ben” campaign (a “Ben” is a $100 bill) to encourage buying from local merchants — in person on online. The campaign was launched late last year to coincide with the holiday buying season. It’s been re-dubbed “Spend a Ben Again.” For more information, visit www.methowconservancy.org/spendaben.html.
Hoping for a surge
With the re-opening of the North Cascades Highway on Sunday (Aug. 30), other local hospitality business owners are hoping for a late-season surge to counter some of their losses before the highway closes again for the winter.
“It’s very good news,” Brian Charlton, manager of Sun Mountain Lodge, said of the highway reopening. The lodge has been closed, as it was last year, because of nearby evacuation notices and the possibility that the lodge’s visitors and staff could be stranded if its only access road was closed by fire. The lodge closed on Aug. 19 — the day the Twisp River Fire started — and was scheduled to re-open Thursday (Sept. 3).
Charlton said the lodge will launch a marketing campaign to entice visitors to return.
“We have a lot of catching up to do,” Charlton said. The lodge had to discard food, let housekeeping chores go, ask guests to leave and tell scheduled visitors not to come.
“It is so costly relocating guests and making refunds,” Charlton said. And occupancy rates will be down considerably, he said.
One small consolation, Charlton said, is that the lodge staff now knows how to gather the right information for insurance claims, having learned something about that last year.
Central Reservations, which represents many local lodging establishments to facilitate bookings, has its finger on the pulse of the tourism economy. And co-owner Kathleen Jardin said this week that the pulse has been fluttering.
More than 75 percent of reservations had been cancelled for Labor Day, Jardin said. Many people have been demanding deposits back as well. “We’re handing back thousands of dollars,” she said. Jardin and her husband, Kyrie, have been answering phones and emails practically non-stop, she said.
Jardin tells callers that the air is now clear, the towns are open for business and that most of the major outdoor attractions have not been harmed. But some people simply don’t believe her, she said.
Jardin pointed out that when hotels, lodges and cabins aren’t full, the ripple effect harms housekeepers and other workers. And she worries that a second consecutive year of setbacks will make it difficult for some businesses to recover — or survive.
At the Mazama Store, isolated at the far end of the valley with its eastbound clientele blocked by the closure of Highway 20, co-owner Rick LeDuc said the impact was quick and definitive.
“We went from first to worst,” he said. “We were having a bang-up year” before the highway closure.
“It’s hard to make those days up,” he said.
LeDuc noted that this is the third consecutive summer that business has been affected by natural events. Two years ago, mudslides closed Highway 20. Last year, the highway was open but the Carlton Complex Fire kept people away. This year, the highway was closed again. “We were not threatened by fire, but we certainly felt the effects of it,” he said.
“Now we all know what it was like before 1972 [when the North Cascades Highway opened],” he said.
All the while, LeDuc said, store staffers fielded a steady stream of questions about the pass, the fires, the air quality and the evacuations. “We were like the public information officer for Mazama,” LeDuc said. “We weren’t always sure what to advise people.”
The effect when the pass opened at noon on Sunday was “immediate,” LeDuc said. The store’s parking lot went from empty to full by that afternoon. “We’re back on track,” he said.
Staying on message
Not long ago, Kristen Smith told the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce that the town was enjoying a banner year in tourism, with hotel and motel tax revenues breaking all records and sales tax revenues booming as well. Last week, after the town was evacuated, it was hardly possible to find a car parked on portions of Riverside Avenue, and only a handful of businesses kept their doors open. Twisp fared somewhat better.
Smith, who is marketing director for the chamber and for Methow Trails, said this week that while the highway’s reopening and decent fall weather will draw many visitors back, there is no plan to launch an emergency marketing push.
“I don’t believe that doing anything now will have an impact,” Smith said. Instead, the town and Methow Trails will focus on pushing the winter season, where there is still plenty of potential for growth.
Smith pointed out that although some events have been cancelled — notably, the Methow Valley Labor Day Rodeo — others have been rescheduled or will go on as planned. Coming up Sept. 12 is the Winthrop Vintage Wheels Show, a perennially popular draw.
Like Marver, Smith took a practical long-term view about the vicissitudes of the tourism industry in a place like the Methow, where nature is always part of the equation.
“It’s going to be one thing or another,” she said. “But our product hasn’t changed. We’re not selling used cars here. We’re selling magic.”