TWIN FALLS — Tourism is booming in south-central Idaho and still has room to grow.
Visitor spending increased to $184 million in 2014. Lodging tax collections rose by more than 17 percent in the most recent fiscal year, and tourism-related professions are expected to see employment gains in the next decade — spurred by the arrival of more hotels.
Some business managers say it’s a result of a good economy, with summer gas prices lower than they’ve been in years. But whether it’s a family kayaking during a reunion or a couple watching Shoshone Falls before heading to Yellowstone National Park, south-central Idaho leaders say the area’s biggest asset is driving the influx of visitors.
What’s that asset?
“Because we’re a state that is so rich with outdoor activities, that’s what’s going to carry us forward,” Idaho Tourism Manager Diane Norton said. “That’s always been the basis of Idaho tourism.”
One upcoming outdoor event has people talking: daredevil Eddie Braun’s jump over the Snake River Canyon in a replica of Evel Knievel’s famous rocket. But the Magic Valley has a wide variety of outdoor activities, from mild to wild, within just a short drive.
Knievel’s attempt — which ended with a parachute malfunction and a crash — drew crowds to south-central Idaho in 1974. On Sept. 17, Braun prepares to fulfill his hero’s dream, but it may come with less fanfare.
“I don’t think it will be even remotely close to the number of people we saw in 1974,” Chamber of Commerce CEO Shawn Barigar said.
But the region doesn’t depend on onetime events for its draw.
“I think Twin Falls has become more of a destination for people instead of a place you pass through on your way to somewhere else,” Barigar said.
The Magic Valley visitor
Hand in hand with outdoor recreation, the No. 1 thing that brings people to Idaho is friends and family, Norton said. That’s good news for an area like Twin Falls that’s experiencing steady population growth.
In a recent survey, 42 percent of visitors to south-central Idaho came from elsewhere in the state, according to the Longwoods Travel USA 2015 Regional Visitor Report for Idaho. Eighty-two percent said they had visited the area in the past, and 67 percent had come in the past year.
The length of people’s stays is pretty evenly spread — 30 percent of overnight visitors in the region stayed for one night, 26 percent for two nights and 28 percent for three or four nights. The report was based on responses to a survey from 238 visitors to the region in 2014 and 2015.
Idaho’s visitors are spending more, too. A Dean Runyan Associates report showed total spending on goods and services in south-central Idaho — excluding air travel and related spending — was $172 million in 2014. While this is a $6 million drop from the previous year’s estimates, it’s still $30 million higher than in 2010.
This year, people arrived even earlier than usual, perhaps driven by local sporting events; visitors began flooding hotels as early as March, Southern Idaho Tourism Executive Director Melissa Barry said.
Other events, such as Western Days or the Magic Valley Brew Fest, can bring a lot of day visitors, but Barigar doesn’t believe they’re a driving force behind overnight stays. Which isn’t to say that day visitors aren’t important to the economy: In 2014, they spent $47 million in the region.
Lodging tax collections in Region 4 for the 2016 fiscal year were up 17.2 percent at $747,863, the Idaho Travel Council reported.
Some of it is price-driven, but “I think it’s more driven by more people staying,” noted Barigar, who serves on the eight-member council.
Region 4 is Cassia, Gooding, Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka and Twin Falls counties. The month with the highest taxable sales for the fiscal year was July, bringing more than $4.7 million into the region.
“That’s an indication of higher average daily rates, and that’s based on demand,” said Kellee Traughber, sales associate with Safari Hospitality, which manages Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn and Quality Inn & Suites in Twin Falls. “We have had a very good tourism year.”
Cammon Wutzke, sales manager for Burley Inn Inc., also said revenues are up — though not so much on the motel side. He manages sales for Best Western Inn Plus, Perkins Restaurant & Bakery and Budget Motel.
The Sun Valley area saw even higher increases in lodging tax collections, up 18.9 percent year-over-year. The state’s were up 13.5 percent.
Restaurants and retail
In July, the Twin Falls visitor center’s guestbook had more than 10,000 signatures.
“That’s the first time in the history of the visitor center that we’ve broken the 10,000 mark in a month,” Barigar said.
The visitor center in turn refers people to popular destinations — whether for recreation, dining or overnight stays. With more visitors, restaurants and retailers are reaping the benefits.
Canyon Crest Dining and Event Center gets many referrals from the visitor center, Assistant General Manager Katie Jones said.
“They are the biggest benefit to the local restaurants and hotels,” she said.
This summer, Jones estimated, she has seen a 50-50 split between visitors and locals who are dining. “We’re getting a lot more travelers stopping in here than in the past.”
The visitor rise has encouraged Canyon Crest to make sure staff are well trained, while an influx of tips has helped employee retention, Jones said.
Oasis Stop ‘N Go convenience stores are also seeing more traffic, particularly from Interstate 84 at the Travelers Oasis Truck Center, president Dan Willie said.
“There’s a lot more travelers on the interstate this year than I’ve ever seen,” Willie said. He estimates revenues at that store are up 10 percent to 15 percent this year.
Tourism is creating jobs in sectors that otherwise are shedding workers.
Hiring usually peaks in summer for travel-dependent businesses, but in Willie’s case August staffing was on the high end of normal. Travelers Oasis is frequented by more visitors than locals and hires about 80 people in the summer, he said.
South-central Idaho’s leisure and hospitality employment as a whole has decreased over the past 10 years. Between 2005 and 2015, the Idaho Department of Labor reports, the industry dropped 30.5 percent in average employment with 2,285 fewer employees. Employment gains in accommodations (23 percent) and arts, entertainment and recreation (11.9 percent) were offset by a 43.2 percent drop in drinking establishment employment and a 54.3 percent drop in eateries.
While the number of eateries has increased by 31 since 2005, employment “is radically down” as more food is ready-made upon arrival at restaurants and food establishments, the department’s Regional Economist Jan Roeser said.
“The industry as a whole is becoming more automated, which accounts for less employment,” she said. The drop in drinking establishment employment is likely a reflection of an “era of more responsible drinking,” where bars are attached to restaurants.
Travel, however, is creating a positive trend.
Dean Runyan Associates estimated a 17.4 percent increase in total direct employment generated by travel spending in south-central Idaho between 2010 and 2014. Travel spending in 2014 resulted in 2,630 jobs in accommodations, food services, arts, entertainment, recreation, retail and transportation.
And the Idaho Department of Labor has a positive projection for leisure and hospitality: 9.2 percent job growth between 2014 and 2024. This includes a 10.8 percent increase in accommodation and food services, and a slight drop in arts, entertainment and recreation.
With at least two extended-stay hotels planned to come into Twin Falls, two new hotels in Ketchum and possibly one in Burley, Roeser expects employment growth in accommodations to exceed that estimate.
The No. 1 southern Idaho tourist question: “Where is Shoshone Falls?”
The falls is always in the top three searched items on the state tourism website, Norton said, and it’s the first thing many visitors to area hotels and the visitor center ask about.
Marketing is changing that by highlighting the area’s other activities.
“Twin Falls does a brilliant job of showcasing the region,” Norton said.
As companies make use of the Snake River Canyon and other sites for outdoor recreation, tourism leaders look ahead to what’s next for Idaho visitors.
Norton predicts increasing interest in libation tourism at wineries and microbreweries. Her next focus, however, is bringing a more unified bicycle program to the state.
“I would really like to tap into that bicycle market,” she said.
It’s something that would require collaboration with the Idaho Transportation Department, but Norton sees it as an opportunity to highlight scenic byways for bicyclists and motorcyclists alike.
The city also may find ways to bring more people to the area. Barigar, who is Twin Falls’ mayor, said the city’s comprehensive plan draft identifies an opportunity for a convention center. For a city its size, area businesses and groups struggle with finding facilities large enough to accommodate meetings.
“If that remains a priority, that’ll probably remain a focus for the next year or two,” he said.
This could help draw more people into the area year-round, one of the priorities Barry has for Southern Idaho Tourism. Typically, the hotel business is feast or famine — with a flood of visitors in summer, and far fewer between September and March.
Her plan is simple: Using higher-than-anticipated grant funds from lodging taxes, the organization in its publications will emphasize snowmobiling and cross-country skiing — as well as springtime attractions like wildflowers and birding.
Idaho anticipates its lodging sales to increase 9 percent next year, Barry said, and she expects the Magic Valley to stay in line or exceed the state.
In the meantime, leaders are enjoying all the state’s triumphs as demonstrated in the latest reports.
“It really solidified that all the partners across the state are doing things right,” Norton said. “We are a really good value.”