The Jackson Hole Dilemma: Ski in, Ski Out - or Party in Town?
By Simon Hudson Endowed Chair in Tourism & Hospitality, University of South Carolina | May 13, 2018
"Please don't tell anyone else about Jackson Hole" was the first thing a Jackson Hole resident said to me when he found out I was a writer. We were in the Wort Hotel on a Tuesday night where once a week, locals mix with visitors in the Silver Dollar Showroom to dance the night away to live music.
I had just arrived, but after spending the following five days in the charming ski area, I could see why the locals want to keep the secret to themselves. Jackson Hole is truly a world-class destination, with domestic and international travelers spending $1.02 billion a year in Teton County, according to a Wyoming Office of Tourism Economic Engine report. And visiting in the winter presents tremendous value for money, despite serving some of the best ski terrain in the world, with hotel prices much lower than the summer.
With over half a million skier visits every winter, Jackson Hole does not rank in the top ten in America in terms of visitation, yet the resort has been named the No. 1 ski resort in North America for eight years in a row by Forbes Magazine. Skiers visiting Jackson Hole (which is actually not an official location on a map) have two options when they are considering where to stay; Teton Village at the foot of the mountains, or the historic Town of Jackson which is 12 miles away. Teton Village offers accommodations for every lifestyle and budget and is a good choice for travelers who plan to spend a lot of time on the hill, making the most of the on-mountain après ski. Downtown Jackson, on the other hand, is Western-themed, with savvily-salvaged Victorian buildings, art galleries, hotels, lively pubs and restaurants. As well as the regular SMART bus service, many downtown hotels offer private ski shuttles to and from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, making it easy to access the mountain.
During my visit this winter I stayed first in the classy Hotel Jackson and then the recently renovated Mountain Modern Motel, both downtown. Located steps away from Jackson Hole's Historic Town Square, Hotel Jackson offers 55 rooms including four spacious suites. The name is a nod to Jackson Hole's rich history: the original Hotel Jackson was one of the first five buildings that made up the original settlement in the early 1900s. The new boutique four-star hotel is owned and operated by the Darwiche family, long-time residents in town. "My father moved to Jackson as a young man after emigrating from the Lebanon at the age of 18," says Sadek Darwiche, General Manager. "The town has afforded him a great place to raise his family, it has allowed him to grow his businesses, and become an elected official – so he wanted to share the experience with others. So, when people kept saying to him that there wasn't a luxury property in the downtown area, he decided it was a good fit: the Lebanese understand hospitality."
Darwiche says it would have been a lot easier to build a three-star hotel: "But if you look at all the businesses we have run, they are always the best of the best, so if we are going to put our name behind something it has to be really dynamic and exceptional. The hotel took 10 years from start to finish – planning and zoning took a long time and we wanted to fund it within the family without outside money, so that took some work – and then two years of construction. We worked with four different architects and had so many debates over the how the interior would look. Attention to detail was key, and we take authenticity to heart, from the materials we used in construction, to the design of the hotel, to the curation of experiences."
Darwiche acknowledges that winters do not see the same traffic as the summer months, so guests in the winter gain a tremendous amount of value from their stay. "We have over three million visitors in the summer versus about 160,000 in the winter who account for about half a million visitor nights. So, low season here is considered to be between September and May, and a large proportion of the lodging tax collected from visitors goes into marketing the winter period. The Chamber of Commerce works very hard with tour operators and travel agencies to specifically drive winter business, and they work with airlines to persuade them to provide flights to us during the winter. We have around 12-15 direct flights now coming into Jackson, and the three major airlines service us – Delta, American and United. So, for the foreign or domestic traveler it is getting much easier to get here."