POWELL — As an economic engine for Wyoming, tourism is second only to mineral extraction.
Rain and rapid snowmelt, which caused extensive river flooding last week, forced the evacuation of Yellowstone and closed entrances into the park. It is not only wreaking havoc on travelers’ vacation plans; it’s devastating the businesses that cater to the tourists.
The Park County Travel Council met Thursday to discuss how best to respond to a situation that changes minute by minute.
The national media has descended on the disaster and left many with the impression a vacation to Yellowstone this year won’t be possible. Trying to change that message is going to be a challenge.
Roads from the North and Northeast entrances into the park are going to take months, possibly years, to repair, and park officials are saying that some parts of the park may not reopen this summer.
The East entrance west of Cody, however, is likely to reopen as the flooding subsides.
The travel council is trying to coordinate communications and industry response to keep Park County attractive to travelers.
“It’s a lot harder to get a positive message out and let people know that Old Faithful is still faithful,” said Mike Darby, council vice-chairman.
Andy Maclellan, president of Verb Interactive, works with the travel council on advertising and communications. He has done work in the Bahamas where hurricanes ruined vacation plans.
Part of the challenge of promoting Yellowstone right now, Maclellan explained, is showing the best side of an area impacted by disaster without seeming uncompassionate to those communities around and inside the park that are having their lives destroyed.
“It has to be done tastefully,” Maclellan said.
The council discussed ways to promote tourism without leaving those communities behind, such as including donation links on websites providing information to vacationers.
Cody Mayor Matt Hall remarked on how people are under the impression that Cody is threatened with flooding.
With the television filled with images of the worst impacts of the floods, people unfamiliar with the area don’t realize that the Shoshone River is controlled by Buffalo Bill Dam.
Tom Mesereau of Mesereau Travel Public Relations, which provides PR services for the council, discussed the firm’s communications strategy to change perceptions about Cody potentially being unsafe for travel.
“We want to emphasize that Cody is a destination in its own right,” Mesereau said, “and how far we are from the real damage.”
The council was in discussions with park officials on how best to manage traffic with limited routes.
As of Saturday, the plan was to use a license plate system based on the last numerical digit on the travelers’ plates.
“I think that [the reservation system] will impact a lot of day use. We have to be flexible and nimble,” said Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism.
Shober said that most recently the office has been in triage mode, dealing with travelers who came to Wyoming for their Yellowstone vacations — only to have that no longer be an option.
The tourism office has been directing them toward all the other outdoor opportunities and attractions in the area. These travelers are already here, and so it’s easy to direct them to other options.
But Shober said the state’s tourism agencies should look into how to draw people to Wyoming, especially travelers who now may be reconsidering a visit to the park.
“It will be really important … that we’re engaging with communities across the state, what there is to see and do,” Shober said.
She also pointed out this is not the first time the state’s tourism agencies have had to deal with crisis communications.
“This is not our first rodeo,” Shober said.
The council also discussed how it will get people accurate and up-to-date information. It is coordinating efforts across social media and websites to direct online traffic to a central location where synchronized messaging can get people the information they need.
Ryan Hauck, travel council executive director, pointed out that sooner or later, people are going to want to talk to someone.
“When more questions arise than answers, these calls are going to happen,” Hauck said.
Answering a deluge of phone calls is going to require more manpower than the council staff can handle, so the council is going to talk to temp agencies to see about getting some extra staff to handle the volume.
With regularly updated scripts, those temporary staff can make it possible for people to connect with an actual person for information they can’t find online.
The council members also discussed ways to coordinate with industry groups. They are setting up contact lists and coordinating with associations so that businesses can also have access to information, which will then get passed on to their customers.
Plans are to open the South, West and East entrances to Yellowstone on June 22. For more information on travel to Park County and Yellowstone, visit www.codyyellowstone.org.