visitor center

Buffalo Chamber of Commerce staff member, Jim Ray, helps plan a scenic route of the Buffalo area for Terry and Rose Dickerson, from Melbourne, Florida. The Dickersons drove all the way from Florida to enjoy the local area and take in the scenery. Bulletin photo

2020 was going to be a banner year for Paul and Lara Schuman.

The couple, who purchased the Mansion House Inn in 2018, had invested nearly every dollar earned over the past two years into their business – painting, renovating and modernizing. All that work and investment of time and money was paying off.

“We had twice the reservations we had last summer,” Lara said. “Our marketing seemed to be working. Everything was pointing to this being our best summer ever. And then the floor fell out from under us.”

In March, the COVID-19 virus first detected in China in late 2019 spread to pandemic levels. The Schumans’ phone started ringing off the hook with cancellations. An estimated 65% of the visitors who had planned to stay at the hotel this summer canceled within a matter of weeks.

“The Europeans and international travelers were the main ones canceling,” Lara said. “We’re just not going to see the international travelers this year, and while we hope to have some domestic visitors, that probably won’t happen until later in the summer when other states’ restrictions ease up a bit.”

Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of the tourist season in Johnson County, but local businesses like the Mansion House are preparing for a season unlike anything they’ve experienced before. Last May, the Mansion House was already housing multiple vacationers – both European tourists and older domestic travelers looking to take a vacation before the end of the school year when families travel. This year, they have no vacationers scheduled to visit until the end of June.

“Our July is going to be greatly reduced because of the postponement of Longmire Days,” Lara said. “August is looking to be our best month, but that could change depending on what happens with the virus.”

A slower tourist season isn’t just bad business for the Schumans and other local business owners – it has a ripple effect that touches all aspects of the county’s economy. The dollars spent by tourists in the county support the wages of hundreds of county residents, and the sales tax revenue collected from tourists goes back into city and county government. The county also collects a 2% lodging tax – largely paid by tourists – which is reinvested into the tourism industry through grants from the Johnson County Tourism Association.

According to the March 20209report “Wyoming Travel Impacts” by Dean Runyan Associates, tourists spent $56.5 million on everything from meals and T-shirts to fuel and hotel rooms in Johnson County during the 2019 calendar year. From that, $3 million was generated in local and state sales tax dollars. The tourism industry in Johnson County employed 630 people and generated$15 million in salaries and wages, according to the report.

“If you’re not in the business of restaurants or hotels or small businesses that survive off of tourism dollars, you probably don’t understand the necessity of people traveling to this state and this town,” said Mandy Tuma, owner of Bozeman Trail Steakhouse. “In small towns like Buffalo, we can’t keep the business doors open without summer tourism. It’s vital – it’s the blood that flows through us.”

The pandemic comes at the worst possible time for local businesses, Tuma said. Summer is traditionally a make-or-break season when business owners make up for losses incurred during the slower winter season.

“We dig a hole in the wintertime and hope we can fill it back up in the summertime,” Tuma said. “If we’re still digging a hole in the summer, we can’t fill it back up, and we are just getting deeper and deeper in debt. If we don’t have a tourist season this summer, winter is going to be even harder, and businesses will be in a world of hurt.”

If there is a reason for optimism, it is Gov. Mark Gordon’s announcement May 13 that Yellowstone and Teton national parks will open in phases beginning this week.

While Johnson County is unlikely to see any out-of-country visitors this summer, there could be a large number of visitors from across the state and country with quarantine-induced cabin fever and a desire to explore Wyoming, according to Jody Sauers, owner of Gigi’s Vintage and Upscale Resale and president of the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce.

“My gut feeling is that regional tourism will probably pick up,” Sauers said. “Everybody is tired of being cooped up in their homes and are ready for a road trip. We seem like a safe place to people – wide-open spaces, a lot to do outdoors. I know the chamber has received multiple calls wanting to know if restaurants and hotels are going to be open. This is not going to be a banner tourism year by any means, but I am optimistic that regional tourism is going to start picking up.”

Lara Schuman agreed.

“I think our tourism season, even more than usual, will be super dependent on what happens with Yellowstone,” Lara said. “That could push more people through Wyoming than might have come otherwise. Most of our visitors are traveling to the Black Hills or Yellowstone. If Yellowstone could remain open even on a limited basis, that could be a huge benefit for our local businesses.”

Whatever tourists do make their way to Johnson County this year will be greeted, as always, by the chamber, Sauers said. Sauers said that she hoped to have both the chamber’s Main Street office and satellite visitor center on U.S. Highway 16 East open by June 1.

Although Sauers is convinced the tourists will come, she also knows they won’t be abundant, which makes cooperation between businesses more important than ever.

“As business owners, it is going to become more important that we promote the other businesses around us to the tourists who do come through our doors,” Sauers said. “We need to make sure they know about all the other awesome stores, restaurants and hotels in walking distance. Local businesses have done this kind of thing forever, but it is going to be even more important this year.”

Community support doesn’t end with businesses helping businesses, Sauers said. More than ever, local shoppers and diners matter in Johnson County.

“As always, we need Buffalo to shop in Buffalo,” Sauers said. “These are the businesses that support our kids and organizations, and they need our support right now. During this season, businesses will need to lean on the Buffalo community for support more than ever.”

No one knows what the tourist season will bring, but Tuma said she is doing her best to remain positive.

“We were closed for the whole month of April and now we’re open – that’s positive,” Tuma said. “We couldn’t let people dine in, but now we can – that’s positive. In my mind, everything’s positive because we’re moving forward. It’s very natural for us to want everything to be better right now, but we just have to be patient.”

The Schumans aspire to Tuma’s level of positivity, Lara said. Sometimes it comes easily, but there are other days when it just doesn’t.

“We don’t know what this summer will look like, let alone next year,” Lara said. “Some days it’s easy to be optimistic, and some days it’s really bleak and hard to find the positives. But it is sort of comforting that this isn’t just happening to us. Everybody is experiencing this worldwide, and that helps us not feel so alone. We aren’t the only people trying to figure this out. Every single business owner is in the same boat right now. We truly are in this together.”

Stephen Dow covers a variety of beats for the Buffalo Bulletin including the Johnson County Commissioners and JCSD #1. Stephen is a Billings native who joined the Bulletin in 2016.

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