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Hillary Folkvord looked to book a hotel for the upcoming Professional Bull Riding events in Big Sky. The only room available was going at $900 for the night. “Heck no, I’m not staying there for $900,” Folkvord said.

Instead, Folkvord found a limo service that would drive her group to and from Big Sky on the weekend — a cheaper alternative than staying the night.

Folkvord, who co-owns the RSVP Motel in Bozeman with her sister, knows hotel prices in Bozeman and the surrounding area are climbing as more tourists visit southwest Montana.

“Room rates around town are skyrocketing,” she said. “People are willing to pay anything to stay in Bozeman.”

The tourism and hospitality industry are on the rebound in Bozeman after taking initial hits in early 2020. A search of room rates for a given night this month in Bozeman ranged from nearly $650 to about $250.

For Christina Mennel, a traveling nurse working temporarily for Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital, the high hotel rates were more than inconvenient.

Mennel came to Bozeman in April on a 3-month contract. She typically stays in hotels while working — especially during the pandemic since it made quarantining after her shifts easier. It’s typically more cost effective than trying to find a furnished apartment to rent for a few months.

expensive hotels

Christina Mennel, a travel nurse working for Bozeman Health, is photographed at her apartment in Belgrade on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.

But when she started looking at Bozeman’s hotel rates, she realized she’d have to find an apartment.

“I’ve moved around, staying in hotels that were like one-bed apartment rooms for $60 a night compared to $540 a night at a hotel here,” she said. She ended up finding a furnished two-bedroom apartment in Belgrade, for $2,400 a month.

During her hunt for temporary housing, Mennel found that hotel rooms are expensive, if you can snag one.

“We’ve been seeing Bozeman being sold out across the board,” said Daryl Schliem, the Bozeman Chamber of Commerce president. “In July, hotel rooms have been almost at 100% capacity and we’re expecting that for August and early September.”

That’s up from summer 2020, which was down 24% in occupancy rates. The chamber tracks that through the city’s bed tax.

Schliem estimated the cost of a hotel room in Bozeman has only increased about 5% to 7% since 2019 this summer.

“We’re seeing a slight uptick strictly because of the volume of traffic,” he said. The cost of doing business has also risen in 2021, which could account for an increase in room rates, he added.

“Higher property taxes, sewer, gas and wages, that’s the normal cost of doing business and it gets passed onto each room,” Schliem said.

While some of Bozeman’s higher end hotels are driving the average room rates up across Bozeman, the lower end hotels are sticking to average summer rates, he said.

“Prices aren’t consistent (daily), but we’re at the highest ADR (average daily rate) that we’ve experienced in the hotel industry,” Folkvord said.

Staffing constraints across the hospitality industry have also stymied some hotels’ ability to open fully. Some hotels are upping room rates to adjust for the rooms that can’t be rented, said Nina Erickson, who owns the Treasure State Hostel downtown.

Erickson’s hostel keeps a flat rate for its dorm-style rooms, and some private rooms, throughout the year. The cheaper alternative has been especially busy this summer, she said.

“We’re full every single night, and we have to turn quite a few people away. We get over 20 calls a day and people walking-in trying to get a bed,” she said.

It’s a stark difference from the hostel’s prior year, when business plummeted due to the pandemic.

“People are jonesing to get traveling again, and Montana is on the map for that,” Erickson said.

Bozeman is on track to see a record number of visitors passing through, Schliem said.

In 2019, the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport saw more travelers than ever, with 1.57 million passengers that year. It was the 10th consecutive year the airport had beat its own records.

After a 2020 slump, airport is now on track to exceed that number, Schliem said. This June, the airport saw 44,000 more passengers flying in and out of Bozeman than in June 2019. And July is expected to have about 60,000 more travelers than in July 2019.

Yellowstone National Park is experiencing a similar surge. This June was the park’s busiest on record, with recreation visits up 12% from the previous record in June 2016.

But more tourists isn’t necessarily a silver bullet to fix the hospitality industries’ woes, said Dax Schieffer, director of Voices of Montana Tourism. Higher costs of goods and supply chain issues are still crunching many businesses, he said.

“It’s too early to say the tourism industry is recovered,” he said. “With higher cost of goods, just more people doesn’t always translate to higher net income.”

And while Bozeman and the Yellowstone-area are experiencing high levels of tourism this summer, not all parts of Montana are seeing the same boom, he said.

Parts of Montana that don’t have the draw of the national parks or other recreation are falling behind.

“Central and eastern Montana, they’ve been set back eight to 10 years in their lodging tax collections,” Scheiffer said, adding that the pandemic caused some of the lowest rates of bed tax numbers in about a decade.

But for travelers planning an autumnal trip to Bozeman: book early.

Folkvord’s hotel is booked through the summer. While tourism usually tapers off by fall, Folkvord thinks that might change this year.

“Normally, we have that shoulder season in the end of September. I don’t see that happening. We’re going to roll into football season, and people who couldn’t come to Bozeman and Big Sky this summer will in the fall,” she said.

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