BOISE, Idaho — The weekend of Boise State University’s graduation in May, The Grove Hotel’s lobby was full. Elevators slowed. And the quiet of the previous 15 months was replaced by a stirring chatter.
The scenes reminded Vicki Carley of what it was like before the coronavirus pandemic.
Carley, regional director of sales and marketing for The Grove Hotel, Courtyard by Marriott Boise Downtown and Hotel 43, caught a glimpse of what’s possible in the near future.
“It was very exciting for all hotels,” Carley said, “just to have that hustle and bustle back in their properties and taking care of the guests.”
Boise State University announced in May that Albertsons Stadium will allow full capacity for football games this fall. The Boise Airport is anticipating a 20% increase in travelers this summer compared to 2019. The Ford Idaho Center in Nampa is already hosting events without crowd-size restrictions.
With more and more people vaccinated and comfortable traveling, hotel occupancy rates are bumping up.
From January to April of 2020 vs. 2021, hotel occupancy in Boise bumped from 48.1% last year to 60.7% this year, according to the Idaho Department of Commerce. In Nampa, occupancy went from 51.9% to 65.5%.
The Department of Commerce only has statistics through April so far, but hoteliers said the percentages keep rising. Another indication of the return of busy hotels is that the average daily rate in Nampa has increased from $89.75 in the first four months of 2020 to $93.27 this year.
Boise’s average daily rate increased from $73.14 in April 2020 to $100.69 in April 2021, according to data from Smith Travel Research.
“I’ll never complain about a slow elevator again,” Carley said. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, there’s laughter. There’s energy.’ That’s what I love about tourism.”
At the hotels Carley oversees, forecasts show occupancy rates each month will be up compared to last year anywhere between 32% and 80% from June until October. The numbers, Carley said, are approaching 2019’s but not quite there yet.
Both Carley and Matt Borud, marketing and innovation administrator for the Idaho Department of Commerce, have observed leisure travelers driving the spikes more than business travelers.
Since leisure travelers are making decisions independently, it may be easier for them to feel comfortable traveling rather than businesses that may be more cautious with groups of people, Borud explained.
“What isn’t back yet is business travel, conferences, meetings, events, large gatherings,” Borud said. “Those types of events that drive visitation. They’re coming back. It’s just a little slower than independent travel.”
In May, the Greater Boise Auditorium District collected $622,000 in lodging taxes, Boise Centre executive director Pat Rice said. That’s a huge increase compared to $125,000 in May 2020 and not too far off the $703,000 from May 2019.
It’s also $13,000 more than how much was collected in May 2018, a testament to how much Boise’s tourism has grown in recent years and how it has remained attractive through the pandemic.
Rice mentioned the Boise Centre has hosted four conventions in the past six weeks and inquiries are picking up.
“Should everything hold true,” Rice said, “we have the potential to have a record September, October and November.”
Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Carrie Westergard pointed to pent-up demand for travel playing a role, too.
Tourism in Boise had a record year in 2019. Already approaching that level has inspired lots of optimism, she added.
“The community should be really happy with those numbers and visitors returning in full strength,” Westergard said. “It’s really encouraging.”
Modern Hotel and Bar manager Polly Evett said the hotel has felt busier recently, partially because it is and partially because of being short-staffed.
Last year, the Modern was closed in April and May. In May 2019, it had a 77% occupancy rate. This past month, it was 86.6% full.
“I just think it’s because people have been trapped at home,” Evett said, “and now that they’re able to get out, they are getting out.”
Since the onset of the pandemic wrecked the tourism industry, leaders in the field projected a slow recovery. Borud said even as early as last summer, travel numbers exceeded expectations. This year, the uptick in leisure travel has been “incredibly encouraging,” he said.
The Treasure Valley’s outdoor opportunities were key in keeping the industry afloat last year, when it was “the only game in town,” Borud said. Eased restrictions means there are more things to do in 2021, but the outdoors could remain a key tourism driver.
“It’s still a pretty desirable activity, desirable escape, desirable destination,” Borud said. “That’s where Idaho is one of the finest destinations anywhere in the world.”
Several in the tourism industry are cautious about the future. They learned the hard way how unpredictable the pandemic could be. So they want to avoid any setbacks.
Still, they’re increasingly positive. BSU’s graduation weekend gave them a taste. Carley said most rooms in the area were taken.
More events returning to the calendar this year means more weekends like that one.
“It shows a lot of promise,” Carley said.
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