Room bookings in Moab increased 20 percent between November 2016 and November 2017 — and in December, lodging increased by 26 percent, while January 2018 saw a 28 percent increase over last year, based on statistics from Love Communications.
“It really validates what we’re getting for what we’re spending,” said Elaine Gizler, director of the Moab Area Travel Council.
The council has been focusing on shoulder-season (or off-season) advertising, Gizler said.
“We don’t push because we don’t need to in the height of the season. What we focus on is ‘how do we keep the hotels filled [in the off season?]’ ... ‘How do we keep people working through the winter months?’ … Our goal is to keep this trend going during the winter months to keep year-round employment and year-round revenue coming into town,” Gizler said.
Overall, from 2016 to 2017, Moab saw a 21.8 percent increase in room bookings. The growth in December and January went above and beyond that yearly average growth. The growing Denver and Salt Lake City tourist markets primarily drove the increase in visitors, Gizler said.
The growth represents a 451 percent return on investment for the travel council’s winter advertising, Gizler noted.
“We’re trying to monitor this quarterly or if we can do it, monthly, so we know if something is not working, then we can change it so that we get the kind of response that we want,” Gizler said.
“We’re thinking about the worker bees, the people that are out there,” Gizler said. “… I think it’s really opening up opportunities for more employment in our community. I want to say that if we are offering and keeping the town busy for 12 months the town is working and moving like a normal town does all year long, that could also help with economic development because I think if a business chooses to come here and they know that the town shuts down after tourist season, they might not be as inclined to bring a business here … it’s a way of planting a seed and seeing our town grow.”
The travel council has also had success with their social media campaign.
“We have found that it’s at a rate of 2.13 percent [engagement] compared to an industry benchmark of one percent,” Gizler said.
On the ground, the economic growth has made a difference for hotels. The Adventure Inn stayed open through the winter for the first time, said owner Markus Heimgartner. Staying open meant the hotel did not have to winterize or lay off employees.
“I wanted to keep a manager and employees on board for full-time, year-round positions, so I didn’t have to lay off anybody because then I have to calculate unemployment costs, etc.,” Heimgartner said.
“December was actually a pretty good month. It was almost comparable to November,” Heimgartner added. “… January was definitely less than December. It’s picked up in February already again … I used to own the Inca Inn and compared to the numbers I had in that place, there’s definitely a change in the off-season. I would say especially during December, mostly during Christmas week.”
Room rates, however, “are still very low in the off-season compared to the regular season,” Heimgartner said. “Hopefully, that can change because we are not cost-effective in the winter months … the travel council should continue advertising for the off season. We still need some more guests.”
At the Hampton Inn, General Manager Larry Stollsteimer has seen a similar bump in business.
“November, December and January we were trending to the positive side, more than past years. So it’s looking pretty good ... it’s going to be another good year for the hotel industry here in Moab,” Stollsteimer said.
Stollsteimer has been the manager of the Hampton Inn since 2010. He said business has been increasing over the years.
“Since the hotel opened in 2009, [winter season business] has been steadily on the rise. The demand for hotel rooms has been up,” Stollsteimer said.
Among residents, opinions on winter tourism are mixed. Street interviews conducted by The Times-Independent found a range of opinions.
“We don’t need to push it,” said Grand County resident Jim Lyman. “We don’t need to encourage it more than we have. It seems like we’re in a crunch and being a worker here, I don’t know if making the tourist season go all year round is a good thing. To tell them, hey, come on down, look how pretty it is and then they get here and it’s 30 degrees, it kind of ruins their weekend. As long as they know what they’re in for. I enjoy it here in the winter but I wouldn’t be telling the world to show up here in February. Even though there’s a lot here in February. It’s just that we’re kind of swamped.”
“I think in the winter time we need a break,” said Steve Jensen, another resident of Grand County.
Randi Fosse took a more positive view. “I really don’t mind it like some of the people do,” Fosse said. “I like people. I like diversity. I don’t really have a problem with it. It’s chaotic, you got to know what you’re in for going to the store.”
Small business owner Jason Parriott, however, said that he appreciates the travel council’s work to promote the off-season.
“I want to see [winter tourism] increase a lot,” Parriott said. “I’m a small business that doesn’t work straight off of tourism but definitely the service industry comes and sees us … I like to see year-round employment. I think we’ve gotten to a place where, we’re right around 10,000 strong in the valley and the outskirts. There are a lot of people who need work year-round. It was a busy year. People were tired. And I get that. Small businesses like us don’t get a chance to get tired … there’s some places that can’t close.”
Parriott said he hopes the planned Utah State University campus will boost winter business.
“Maybe we won’t have to push tourism as the full 24-7, 365 days a year,” Parriott added. “The college will give us that boost from the winter side and also places to live and service industry workers. I think it all ties together ... for us to become winter active, it won’t be done just by tourism because we don’t have that much to offer. When it’s cold, it’s cold.”
The winter growth comes as the state legislature is considering a bill to change how the transient room tax is allocated. Currently, two-thirds of the local TRT allotment is required to be spent on marketing and advertising for tourism. One third is allocated to the county to mitigate the impacts of tourism. H.B. 367 proposes that a full 50 percent of the TRT allotment go to counties, and that counties be allowed to use the TRT money to repair roads impacted by tourism, which is currently not a permitted use of funds. The remaining 50 percent of the TRT would go to marketing and advertising.