In Wyoming, and especially its principal tourist town Jackson, a decades-long quest to bring in more tourists in the fall to even out a roller-coaster economy is bearing fruit. But sources say the roller-coaster is starting to show signs of peaking.
In the early 1980s and earlier, Jackson business owners say that as soon as school was back in session, it was like the tourist flow valve turned off. Business transactions went from hopping to halting in a New York minute. Businesses hobbled through fall, winter and spring with revenues and a hangover from the hard-work summers.
But many businesses had to de-staff through the off-season to stay afloat, leading to a highly transient worker base.
Then, 35 years ago, the community dreamed up the Fall Arts Festival. The event started small around a handful of galleries’ art shows in the town. Since then, the event has picked up prominence to become a premier event for the arts community centered on more than 30 galleries’ work, large-scale community events, and an art auction that last year organizers said brought in about $10 million.
The results speak for themselves. Park visitation to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park are widely known as key indicators of the health of Jackson’s tourism-based economy. In 1986, one of the earliest years of the Fall Arts Festival, Grand Teton National Park fielded about 163,000 visitors in September – well under half the visitors it saw in August of the same year. Yellowstone brought in about 295,000 visitors compared to 614,000 the month prior.
By contrast in 2018, Grand Teton National Park welcomed 559,000 visitors and more than 724,000 people flooded Yellowstone in September compared to 692,000 and 814,000. While in the early years of the Fall Arts Festival the traffic more than halved between August and September, in 2018 it only dropped by about 19% for Grand Teton National Park and less than 15% for Yellowstone.
While no one would be likely to attribute the entirety of that massive change to Jackson’s Fall Arts Festival, there’s also few who would claim the festival hasn’t been a major factor in the shift.
Fall artsy crowd
One gallery owner in Jackson, Maryvonne Leshe of Trailside Galleries, said Fall Arts Festival has steadily grown over the years. Maybe too much.
“It’s reached a point where it’s almost gotten to be too many different things happening at once,” Leshe said in a phone interview. “I feel like in some ways it should be spread out more – there’s a smorgasbord of events.”
Those events cover a wide range. Palates and Palettes Gallery Walk kicks off the festivities when most galleries pair with local restaurants to serve up fine arts and fine eats at the same time. A quickdraw allows nationally recognized artists 90 minutes to paint a painting or sculpt a sculpture on the Town Square before it’s auctioned off. Dozens of galleries host their biggest shows of the year. And the National Museum of Wildlife Art hosts its gala Western Visions Show.
More recently, the Fall Arts Festival has diversified to include the Western Design Conference, where furniture, fashion, jewelry and home décor are on exhibit. Food and wine tastings on the Town Square intermingle with fine art street festivals. The Jackson Hole Art Auction, a creation of Leshe and Trailside Gallery, opened in 2006 with about $6 million in sales – it has since increased to $10 million.
And this year, the Jackson Hole Fine Art Fair is bringing a wide variety of national galleries and artists into one location to exhibit and sell.
“As a business owner, the pie slices start getting thinner all the time,” Leshe said. “It’s still a great weekend – financially, it’s really very positive for the galleries, and it’s fun for the artists.”
Of course, a rising tide lifts all boats, and Leshe is the first to admit that other Jackson businesses benefit from the Fall Arts Festival.
“It’s a real positive for Jackson,” she said.
And a relatively new tourism board spending money from a lodging tax used to advertise Jackson Hole and events in the shoulder seasons has hard figures to corroborate that point of view.
“Part of the mission and vision of the Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board is to create a year-round economy, but not to promote summer,” said Kate Sollitt, executive director of the Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board. “We just don’t have the capacity.”
Hotel occupancy, according to Sollitt, is a key driver of the tourism economy. If the rooms are full, they have come, in other words. And fall occupancy was up 12.6% over the prior year for the annual 2018 report.
“Our plan of promoting the shoulder seasons is working and has shown success over the years,” she added.
However, the climb has begun to taper off – dramatically enough that Sollitt called it a “flatline.” Despite 12.6% growth in one year, the overall growth rate for the past five years is only about 1.9%.
“We talk about the flatline often in our board meetings,” Sollitt said. “I do think it’s an economic indicator of people tightening their wallets.”
And it not just in Jackson. For the Rocky Mountain Region, she said, summer occupancy has been flat or down. However, in Jackson, average daily rates – the price of a room – has not come down. Sollitt is confident that when those begin to fall, occupancies will climb again.
“Rates have gotten pretty high,” she said. “Tourism is good, but we’re starting to see a little bit of a decline.”
Other fall festivals
The decline isn’t slowing down the Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board’s efforts to promote fall festivals that bring in tourists. But not the Fall Arts Festival.
“We don’t fund the Fall Arts Festival because we don’t need to,” Sollitt said. “It’s pretty self-sustaining.”
Instead, the board spent $168,000 last year to promote other summits, sporting events, the Fireman’s Ball and a pair of other festivals: the Jackson Hole Wild Fest and SHIFT.
The Wild Fest, according to its website, is a free film festival focused on “issues that matter, stories that need telling and groundbreaking science.” In 2018, it got an $8,000 contribution from the board.
SHIFT, on the other hand, drew a contribution of $100,000 from the board – five times more than any other fall event. The October event occurs well outside the traditional draw for Jackson Hole, as visitation numbers suggest. The sometimes-controversial event is designed to “Shape How we Invest For Tomorrow” with speakers and activities teaching how to cope with mass extinctions and a migration inside by humanity as technology changes daily lives.
No figures were available as of press time about how many out-of-towners attend SHIFT or how much it has impacted lodging and other businesses since it started five years ago.
However, the weight behind it indicates some success.
Jackson isn’t the only place with forces building behind fall festivals and events. Oktoberfests – mostly in September – have sprung up around the state. Cheyenne has its Greek Festival. The Copper Days Festival in Saratoga is designed for tractor enthusiasts.
Will they all work to flatten out the tourism roller-coaster in Wyoming? Nobody can be sure, but Sollitt at the Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board seems confident that this fall, at least, should remain busy in Jackson.
“We’re not projecting a decline,” she said.
And that’s saying something when the town has been setting historic highs in recent years for fall.