Bigfork businesses report booming summer

Bigfork Eagle | October 14, 2020 2:20 AM

This summer was far from typical, but despite the fluctuating restrictions imposed on local businesses and general uncertainty within the local economy and beyond, many Bigfork proprietors reported a stronger than average summer season. In the spring, business owners were scrambling to stay afloat amid the statewide stay-at-home order and mandated closures for certain industries.

Bigfork Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rebekah King said that many local business owners experienced a wave of cancelations, but things rebounded a few months later. Visitors from larger, metropolitan areas flooded to Montana, hoping to ride out the pandemic or simply enjoy their summer.

“Talking to the lodging facilities that I have, they were as busy if not busier than 2019 and those reservations are continuing into the fall,” King noted. “People are staying longer.”

Margrit Matter, owner of the Swan RIver Inn, reported that this past summer was one of her best. Guests extended their stays, booking rooms for as long as 45 days.

“They just wanted to get out of Texas or California or whatever,” Matter said. ”They were looking for a place where they could homeschool kids and work remotely.”

Matter saw business ramp up around mid-June and things were hopping by July.

“The complete opposite of what we expected,” she added.

And as fall begins, the reservations keep coming. It’s a trend that Matter anticipates will continue, especially as more people are moving to the area but finding it difficult to purchase a home in the current market. Four of the inn’s 12 units come with kitchens, making it an attractive lodging option for long-term guests.

While Matter has enjoyed the boom in business, staffing has been a challenge. She had trouble finding anyone who wanted to work and ended up putting in long hours at the inn, sometimes working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“The workforce is basically nonexistent,” Matter lamented. “I’m offering one of the highest wages for cleaning rooms, but even with that I can't get anybody.”

That wage is $15 per hour and only recently was Matter able to make a single hire.

“There were weeks where I did not have anybody, where I had to do it all,” she explained. “They wanted a paycheck but they didn't want to work.”

King said that many types of businesses struggled to find employees. The troubling trend was present last year, but worsened this summer.

“This year many businesses modified their hours, and actually were closed on certain days. One restaurant never opened for lunch all summer because they just couldn't find the staff,” King said.

Part of the difficulty came from a lack of foreign workers. In June, President Trump restricted many work visas through the end of the year. Including many J-1 visas, which allow foreigners to work and travel in the U.S. temporarily. King said Bigfork usually sees 40 to 60 of these workers, many of whom even take second jobs.

“Those 40-60 people are more like 80 to 100 bodies when you look at how they are spread throughout the town,” King said. “They really do fill the minimal skill jobs and they’re totally happy that they’re a dishwasher in Montana because they get to go to the park and experience Flathead Lake and experience a whole different world.”

Entering the fall season, King expects the staffing shortages and modified hours of operation to continue, especially now that college students working summer jobs have returned to campus.

Other notable trends she observed throughout the summer months included an uptick of visitors from states like Minnesota and Texas and more visitors who were choosing Bigfork as their primary destination, rather than a stopping point for a day or two.

“Once people got here they wanted stuff to do,” she said. “With Glacier being closed, they were looking for things to do in Bigfork.”

The chamber offices referred many prospective hikers to the Jewel Basin or the Swan River Nature Trail and educated visitors on proper bear spray usage. As people extended their stays in Bigfork, they took advantage of local services.

“My big concern going into the season was our guides -- boat rental companies, fishing guides, raft companies, anything like that,” King said.

But her fears turned out to be unfounded. One local fishing charter company had to stop taking reservations at one point since they were so busy.

“They were slammed,” she said. “It was much busier than anyone anticipated this summary in Bigfork.”