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National park vistors and consumers 'want more amenities': Delaware North President of Parks

Scott Socha, Delaware North President of Parks and Resorts Division, outlines the luxury experiences national park visitors are seeking, the want for more amenities and internet access, park visitation trends, and climate change concerns in parks.

Video Transcript

- Well, despite high gas prices, many millions are hitting the road and trekking through America's national parks this summer. 44 parks saw record visits last year, but we're not necessarily roughing it the way we used to. That's because luxury hotels are now popping up at parks around the country.

Scott Socha is the Delaware North President of Parks and Resorts. Scott, nice to see you. What's driving this trend of luxury in our national parks?

SCOTT SOCHA: Well what I would tell you David-- and thank you for having me. It's very exciting to be here. We really operate in the outdoor travel market space. It's a $450 billion market space that represents 3% of GDP.

It's an important part of the economy, no question about it. We really operate outside of owned assets outside of national parks, specifically west Yellowstone, the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park, where we opened up our first cabin development almost 10 years ago. We saw this trend starting way back then.

We're not glamping operators. About five years ago, we opened up another cabin development at the South entrance of Yosemite National Park at Tenaya Lodge. So there's definitely the consumer.

We see the interest there. We've done some research on it in the last 18 months, and it's clear that the consumer is gravitating toward this cabin development. We know exactly what they want. We know where they want to be, and we're trying to meet their needs ahead of time

- Scott, what are you seeing demand-wise? Because last year, 297 million recreational visits at national parks, up 25% from 2020. And you talk about what you're doing to meet those needs. How have those needs changed, and what do consumers want today?

SCOTT SOCHA: The consumers today certainly want more amenities I can tell you there was a-- we would tell ourselves a story that the customer didn't want to be connected in that national park setting or around national parks. It's clear that the consumer wants to be connected. They want cell connection. They want Wi-Fi connection. There's no question about it.

The market continues to be strong today in 2022 where certainly there are some headwinds with some weather events that have occurred this year. But that's the reality of the business. It happens every year.

- And we know that there was this push for the great outdoors during COVID when people couldn't fly. You wanted to perhaps travel somewhere locally, make the most of some of your staycation there. But what about when some of this pent-up demand starts to go away? Are you concerned that perhaps in the off-season, you won't see as much demand there?

SCOTT SOCHA: I'm not concerned, and it's a seasonal business that we're used to dealing with, no question about it. But I'm not concerned about it. There is a difference between an active participant in the outdoors and a passive participant in the outdoors, and we have to make sure that we can meet those needs. There really are four different consumer personas that we're focused on, and mobile matures are a bit more passive. The family adventurer is more active. And we have to make sure that at the right season and the right time, we have that to meet their needs.

- Scott, you mentioned some weather events. But really, we're seeing a changing climate and particularly heartbreaking at some of our nation's parks when you look at the flooding and the fires and the heat waves. What's the impact you're seeing there?

SCOTT SOCHA: It's-- again, I've been in this business for a long time, and I can't think of a year that we haven't had an impact. The event in Yellowstone National Park back at the beginning of June, it was a major event. I would tell you that senior leadership in the National Park Service and Cam Sholly, the superintendent, did an absolutely amazing job in order to get the park back open again.

There's no better time to go visit Yellowstone National Park than right now. It's incumbent upon us as business folks to really engage with the consumer to make sure that they'd understand they don't necessarily need to cancel their travel plans. They may need to alter what they're going to do once they get there.

I'm an avid skier, and I can tell you in the ski industry, we love the bad weather. We love the strong storms, and they embrace it, and they communicate very well with the guests. We have to do a better job of that because it's not going to go away.

- Scott, what about the workers? Are you able to find the workers you need in this industry? We talked to so many CEOs, owners in the hospitality business saying that this is a massive issue for them. What about you?

SCOTT SOCHA: Incredibly difficult. Great question. We have adjusted wage rates.

We have housing in the parks in which we operate and the parks where we operate around, but we're very dependent on the international workforce. H-2B's and J-1's are incredibly important. But again, as business operators, we have to understand that the workers may not want to work on a Sunday. They may not want to work on a holiday, and how does that adjust our operating needs in order to meet the customer demands?

- And obviously, you have rising gas prices, inflation, a lot of people sort of deciding what they're going to do with their discretionary spending. So what would you say is the biggest selling point of going this route, going with a company like yours, versus, say, taking a trip to Europe, where it's perhaps a little bit cheaper given the exchange rate?

SCOTT SOCHA: I'd tell you it's a lot easier to drive nowadays, for sure. There's no question about it. And then you can adjust where you want to go. It's regional based on where there's availability and the different parts and the different outdoor market spaces, and you have to be willing to adjust.

- Scott Socha, great to have you. Thanks so much for joining us.

SCOTT SOCHA: Thank you.