Yellowstone National Park

Will Delaware North, Xanterra Turn Yellowstone Upscale?

Delaware North isn’t afraid to spend a buck to make a buck: witness the improvements the firm made to the West Yellowstone Holiday Inn after a purchase. True, no one would call the Holiday Inn a swank property, but the place is nicer, and room prices during the peak season were raised accordingly.

Last week the firm announced it purchased Yellowstone Park Hotel (66 rooms) and Gray Wolf Inn & Suites (103 rooms), pushing the number of rooms owned in West Yellowstone up to 293. That’s not close to a majority of rooms, of course. The Yellowstone Park Hotel has already been upgraded in recent years (rooms feature flat-screen TVs and granite countertops), but the Gray Wolf Inn is in sore need of some TLC — something Delaware North is already surely planning.

Couple that with the announcement that Xanterra would begin luxury-rail service to Yellowstone beginning in 2011, first reported in detail here. We’re not talking about a $50 train ride from Livingston: we’re talking a trip that will cost between $900-$1,500 a day, well outside the price range of most Americans.

What’s concerning about the hotel purchases is the increased emphasis on corporate ownership in the Yellowstone region. Delaware North is one of the largest privately owned corporations in the world, with holdings ranging from concession firms to arenas (Boston’s TD Garden). It also owns the Yellowstone General Stores, which rather unimaginatively runs the General Stores in Yellowstone National Park under a NPS contract. The other major concessionaire in the Park, Xanterra, is also privately owned and rather large, being of one reclusive millionaire Philip Anschutz’s holdings, which also includes the Union Pacific rail line and extensive oil and natural-gas interests in Wyoming and beyond.

While Anschutz has been loathe to invest in his holdings — Xanterra and the NPS this winter sparred over who would bear the cost of upgrading Fishing Bridge Campground electrical facilities — Delaware North is not. Indeed, we’d be surprised if Gray Wolf wasn’t completely made over to justify room rates of $300-$350 for most of the summer. The firm is in the midst of a $10 million renovation of its Tenaya Lodge property directly outside the entrance to Yosemite National Park, adding spa and corporate conferencing capabilities. One of the charms of West Yellowstone is the total lack of any large-scale corporate-conferencing capabilities: we suspect that will not be true in five years.

Change is inevitable. While we love the idea of going to Yellowstone and seeing familiar faces every year, the increased corporate presence in West Yellowstone — at a time when 3 million folks visit Yellowstone National Park annually — was bound to be. True, we’re still lamenting the loss of Hamilton Stores in what some would call an irrational manner, and we’re fans of keeping things small and local in such a historic area like Yellowstone. Still, it would behoove West Yellowstone officials to keep close tabs on what Delaware North have planned for their quaint, homey community: they still control the future.

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