February 18, 2014

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Article

Collateral Damage

A Local Business Weathers the Government Shutdown

By Kaylie Astin

February 18, 2014


Lance Syrett, general manager of Ruby’s Inn, kept an eye on the news leading up to the federal government shutdown in October 2013. Located at the entrance of Bryce Canyon, Ruby’s Inn is a popular vacation destination for both international and domestic tourists—and Syrett knew that if the government closed the national parks, it could be catastrophic for his business.

But for years, Syrett had heard plenty of speculation from newscasters about imminent economic disasters, only to have a last-minute deal avert a shutdown just in time. But, as Syrett says, “The wolf actually shows up sometimes.”

The nature of the hotel business makes it hard for Syrett to recoup lost earnings. “The problem with a hotel is it’s not like a grocery store, where if someone doesn’t buy a product, they come back the next day and it’s probably still there. With hotels, you can’t do that. Once a room doesn’t sell for a certain night, you can never get that back.”

Syrett estimates that during the 16 days the national parks were closed in October, his business lost half a million dollars. Add to that another half million he lost in upcoming business for the near future (from cancellations of future bookings, including international tour companies whose clients are no longer willing to travel to U.S. national parks), and Syrett figures his business easily lost a million dollars that he may never recover.

So on October 1, when Syrett and his staff realized the national parks would be closed indefinitely, they had to get creative in order to survive.

Improvise

The first priority was to find something for visitors to do. Luckily, Syrett’s family business owns some private land at the rim of the canyon, which is in nearly the same pristine condition as when Syrett’s great-grandfather bought it in 1916. Not only did he and his staff arrange free tram tours of their land, they also contacted other area businesses to offer their land for their guests.

Setting up a visitor information center in the lobby helped guests salvage their vacations with alternative activities. Syrett also credits the Utah State Office of Tourism and Garfield County Office of Tourism for providing guests information about what to do in Utah besides the national parks.

Focus on Customer Service

Syrett and his team were, of course, stressed and upset about the closure of the parks. But their guests were also distressed. So Ruby’s Inn staff focused on customer service. They provided guests as much information as possible. They listened to guests cry and even gave hugs when needed. Syrett and other key managers trained staff on how to explain the situation to foreign guests (international travelers make up as much as 80 percent of bookings during the fall months).

They also decided to be generous. “We were very reasonable when it came to cancellation policies. There were a few places that said, ‘We’re not going to let them cancel,’ but we did. We waived their cancellation fees.”

Maintain Employee Morale

Already worried about their own job security, employees sometimes became scapegoats for angry guests whose vacation plans were ruined. “It was almost like a tangible cloud,” Syrett says.

Management held regular meetings to help employees make the best of a bad situation, and they encouraged staff regularly. Fortunately, Syrett didn’t have to lay anyone off.

Prepare for the Future

Syrett acknowledges that things would have been much worse for Ruby’s Inn if the governor hadn’t stepped in with state funding to reopen Bryce Canyon. “The state of Utah needs to be commended for what they did, as far as leading the nation in getting the national parks open again,” Syrett says. “That was a huge shot in the arm. During that last part of October, we were able to reclaim a lot of business.”

After seeing the economic benefits of the state’s emergency funding assistance, Syrett is taking action to ensure the state can provide help during future shutdowns. He and some other business owners have contacted state legislators about establishing a state funding mechanism for what they’re calling “National Park Insurance.”

Syrett’s top concern going forward is future business. “Will people stay away from planning a national parks vacation because they are afraid of the federal government closing the parks down again?” he asks. In the event of a future federal government shutdown, this fund would help the state do exactly what it did last October, only sooner. If the federal government isn’t funding the national parks, the governor can contact the director of the National Park Service and the Secretary of the Interior and send them the money needed to keep the parks open.

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