The business landscape for winter tour operators in Yellowstone National Park saw a shake-up this week as the National Park Service awarded a series of concessions contracts that will remain in effect for the next decade.
Some longtime snowmobile and snow coach operators were selected to continue guiding winter visitors into Yellowstone, while many others with decades of experience were not among those awarded new contracts.
A total of 23 new 10-year concession contracts were awarded to nine businesses, according to a statement released by the park’s public affairs office. That’s a consolidation that has left less than half as many permitted businesses as had been operating for several previous years under earlier winter-use plans.
The new contracts will take effect starting with the upcoming 2014-15 winter season, which also marks the start of the park’s new winter-use plan that allocates specific numbers of “transportation events” for each gate.
The rule replaces the previously used concept of a fixed maximum number of snowmobiles and snow coaches allowed in the park each day with a new, more flexible approach based on transportation events. Under the new contracts, concessioners will be able to use their allocated number of transportation events for a mix of snow coaches and snowmobiles, subject to certain limits.
Gary Fales Outfitting was the only company selected to operate at the park’s East Gate, near Cody, Wyo. The company has long been the only operator taking snowmobiles over 8,524-foot Sylvan Pass, where park workers use a howitzer cannon to clear snow from hillsides that are prone to avalanches.
Fales said he has operated for many years without knowing whether snowmobiles or access over Sylvan Pass would be allowed the following year, so the 10-year contract offers a welcome degree of certainty.
“We will expand our snowmobile fleet, there’s no question about that,” he said. Hiring more staff and expanding marketing will also be easier under a 10-year plan.
Fales said he did not propose running a snow coach over Sylvan Pass, mainly due to the high operating costs and long distance from the East Gate to prime attractions at Canyon and Old Faithful.
If new snow coach technology is eventually approved that allows for greater reliability and lower capital and operating costs, that could provide an option for the addition of snow coach trips from the East Gate, Fales said.
In West Yellowstone, Mont., the busiest gate for winter travel into the park, four companies were selected: Back Country Adventures, Buffalo Bus Touring Company, Two Top Snowmobile Rental and Yellowstone Winter Guides.
Absent from that list was See Yellowstone, a winter tour company owned by Clyde Seely and partner Bill Howell, who have been a offering winter tours and packages since 1971.
Seely said his company submitted a proposal on time, and he was surprised not to be among the selected businesses.
“We were very disappointed, especially after all the years we’ve been doing this and working to keep the park open for winter access,” he said. “But all we can do now is congratulate those who are winners and wish them the best.”
Selected to provide trips through the South Gate were Forever Resorts, Teton Science Schools and The Four Seasons Hotel and Resort. Yellowstone Year-Round Safaris will offer tours through the North Gate, while Xanterra Parks & Resorts will continue to offer tours under a separate contract that was previously finalized.
Self-guided snowmobile tours will also be allowed this winter under a plan to be finalized in the coming months. That may create a market for up to five daily best-available technology snowmobile rentals at each gate. But tour operators have said they are not sure how to best work within what is likely to be a logistically complicated system for reserving advance dates and equipment for self-guided trips.
Park officials said that competitive selection of bidders was based on responses to five selection factors: protecting park resources, providing services at reasonable rates, experience, financial capability and the proposed franchise fee return to the federal government.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].