As Idaho recovers slowly, tourism pulls ahead

SPECIAL TO BUSINESS INSIDERMay 21, 2013 

Editor's Note: This story has been corrected. An earlier version misspelled the name of chef Gary Kucy of Rupert's Restaurant at Hotel McCall.

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At the confluence of the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers in Riggins, the marketing slogan is "Small Town, Big Backyard." The catch phrase may hook anyone looking for relaxation, athletic and cultural diversions and elbow room.

A craving for adventure in sparsely populated, remote spaces is one of the reasons tourism is a bright spot in Idaho's economic recovery, says Jack Sibbach, director of marketing and public relations at the Sun Valley Resort.

"Idaho has a wonderful product," Sibbach says. "We know that, but we have to invest in ourselves and keep promoting ourselves."

His company, the granddaddy of Idaho tourist attractions, is mourning the loss of longtime owner R. Earl Holding, who died last month, but is hopeful about growth. "The skier count was 1.8 percent above last year," Sibbach says. "We saw a small increase in numbers and bigger increases in revenue. We found people were a little looser with their money. The trend is going in a positive direction, but it's going to be slow. Reaching 2006 numbers is going to take at least five more years."

Tourism has been one of Idaho's strongest growth sectors the past two years, says Randy Shumway, a Zions Bank economic adviser who monitors the state's economy. Lodging tax revenues rose 7 percent in fiscal 2012. In Ada County , which has about one-fourth of Idaho's hotel beds, occupancy was up about 8 percent in 2012.

The growth persists this year.

"Tourism is a bright spot in the economy that is fragile in other areas," says John Cohen, the new executive director of the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Karen Ballard, administrator of the tourism division in the state Department of Commerce, says the U.S. Travel Association ranks Idaho behind only Montana and North Dakota for tourism growth. The association says that domestic and international travelers spent $3.9 billion in Idaho in 2011.

Yet tourism's challenges persist, too.

At Sun Valley, the struggle to return to more profitable times is the resort's permanent problem of accessibility. That is a challenge for all of Idaho as airlines cut back on regional flights in favor of more profitable markets, Sibbach says.

Sun Valley will continue to subsidize Alaska Airlines by paying for empty seats to keep planes flying to Hailey. "We budget for it," he says. "But if the planes are full, we make more money."

IN RIGGINS, GUIDED HUNTS ARE BACK

Karen and Andy Savage, who bought a Riggins-based guide business, Heaven's Gate Outfitters, four years ago, are seeing a bump in business, too. They are sold out for guided hunting a year in advance.

"We purchased this business four years ago right in the middle of this whole economic disaster," Karen Savage says. "We took it over at the worst possible time, but we're pretty happy with how things are going."

Heaven's Gate offers guided hunting, fishing, horseback riding and backcountry travel to 30 high-mountain lakes near Riggins. Some offerings are booked four years out.

"Over the last 10 to 15 months we've seen a huge upswing," Savage says.

Reasons include advertisements in national hunting magazines and website promotions. "It's a combination. We do three to six trade shows around the country. People are feeling more comfortable, and we've spent a lot of money on marketing."

Riggins, like many small towns in Idaho, has many visitors for various events like the May rodeo and the upcoming Big Water Blowout, a raucous celebration of spring high water runoff, and Hot Summer Nights, a summer celebration the fourth weekend in July.

"Our business is up here three-fold, because we've introduced flowers and plants," says Mary Lou Hirst, who owns the Idaho Banana Co. with her husband, Clyde. They sell wine, beer, cards and whitewater photography to clients of rafting companies.

"Hot Summer Nights increased in the three years that we've been involved," she says. "We think it's going to be the biggest ever this year, because the High Street Band [a New York cover band] is coming. Each year it gets better, and the hotels are already sold out."

CONVENTION BOOKINGS RISE IN COEUR D'ALENE

In the first quarter, the slowest time of year for Coeur d'Alene tourist businesses, hoteliers all reported exceeding last year's sales, says Steve Wilson, CEO of the Coeur d'Alene Chamber of Commerce. "As we look forward to the future, early bookings for conventions are up," he says.

Weather can dampen Coeur d'Alene tourism. Last June was one of the wettest on record. But the year was still "very good," Wilson says. This year spring is off to a pleasant start.

The Silverwood Theme Park just north of the city has two new rides in place for this summer, too. Each new ride usually results in 5 percent to 10 percent more ticket sales at the gate, Wilson says.

Coeur d'Alene also benefits from quick accessibility for visitors from Seattle.

"Coeur D'Alene hasn't quite bounced back to 2007, but our track record has been pretty good," he says. "The visitor center had 35,000 visitors by the end March. With April and the first week of May we are up 9 percent."

VICTOR: YES TO $1.50 CONES, NO TO $100 SHIRTS

Seasonal changes affect sales of "World Famous Huckleberry Milkshakes" at the Victor Emporium in Teton County, Idaho's gateway to Jackson, Wyo., and Yellowstone National Park. In March, Victor Emporium's business was up 15 percent from March 2012.

"We had a very hot summer last year that was very good for ice cream sales," says co-owner Kathryn Ferris. She and her business partner, Kim Keeley, made 39,627 ice cream sales in the four-month period from June to September, the best for the business since 2007.

"Mother Nature has a lot to do with it, but I think people will always spend money on ice cream," Ferris says. "A single cone is only $1.50."

But it will be a while before the Victor Emporium sells the $100 cowgirl shirts that once flew out the door.

MCCALL: AFFORDABLE BY NORTHWEST TOURISM STANDARDS

"We're not back to 2006 numbers, but I hope we might get there this summer," says Bonnie Bertram, who owns the Pancake House on Idaho 55 with her husband, George. The complex, built in 2002, houses five tourist-oriented businesses selling items from pastries to antiques.

"2009 and 2010 were our worst years," Bertram says. "I talk to my customers. When you don't see a construction worker or a Realtor - things just started slowing down."

Bertram says one change she has seen as tourism comes back is more elderly people traveling together in vans rather than in their own RVs.

Another: The Manchester Ice & Event center is bringing in hockey tournaments, resulting in new visitors during slow shoulder seasons.

A third: Chef Gary Kucy of Rupert's Restaurant at Hotel McCall was selected as a semifinalist in the 2013 James Beard Foundation Awards for Best Chef. That's a sign that food is increasingly important in Idaho tourism, Bertram says.

"There are a couple of new restaurants, and there are still some for-rent signs. We're at a wash right there," she says. "I think we're like everyone else. We're trying to pretty up our town and let people know we're here.

"McCall is a recreation paradise with the lake, the mountains and Ponderosa Park. We're still more affordable than a lot of tourist places in the Northwest."

HEY, TOURIST: MOVE YOUR BUSINESS HERE

Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who promotes economic development, spoke May 9 in Idaho Falls at the annual Idaho Conference on Recreation and Tourism. He offered his listeners an admission and a challenge.

"I told them, because I am an old, long-term Idahoan, I am guilty of not advocating more for tourism," he told Business Insider.

He says he also told them, "I will do a better job of promoting tourism if [you] will talk about how great a place Idaho is for doing business. ... If someone comes here to fish or ski, they know it's a great place. I would ask them: Why don't you look at Idaho from another standpoint?"

COMPANIES FIND FUN ON THE WATER

Cascade Raft and Kayak owner Debbie Long says she is seeing corporate business returning this summer to the Payette River, where her family's company helps people enjoy the rapids between McCall, Lowman and Horseshoe Bend.

"We've got a high level of anticipation for this summer," Long says. "We have a great level of water because it's not too much … steady flows from right now on - not the peaks of super high water. We had a cold, cold winter and we've got a beautiful spring. Our bookings are strong. Big corporations from two or three years ago are back."

Long says in the river guiding business there is some good fortune even in lean times because people save up to play in the water.

"Folks keep coming back year after year. Idaho is the whitewater state. People who live here bring visitors, so they get the true feeling of what Idaho is all about."

Matt Furber: mattfurber@gmail.com

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