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National Parks: The People’s Parks

Courtesy DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite

Many attendees will travel the extra miles for corporate retreats at national parks across the country.

Kelly Hamilton knew it was a hard sell, but he was determined to hold the national conference he was planning for the National Citizens Review Panel at Jackson Lake Lodge at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

Members of his board of directors weren’t enthused. Wouldn’t it be easier, they asked, to meet in downtown Minneapolis or some other city?

Hamilton put his head down and pushed on. Not that he didn’t worry about the issue of getting 150 people from all over the country into Jackson Hole, Wyo. “Oh God, yes, I worried,” he said.

Looking back, Hamilton said the payoff was well worth the unease. Planners for next year’s conference are worried about measuring up to the one planned by Hamilton, executive director of the Wyoming Citizens Review Panel in Cheyenne. Already, the conference is considering a return to the national park in 2014.

“What really made the conference a success is that we brought people in from all over the nation and took them out in the middle of this incredible beauty. It is the most spiritual place in the world, even if you aren’t spiritual,” said Hamilton. “They were able to be energized and pay close attention to the topics being discussed, because they didn’t have the distractions you have in a city, like trying to cross the street or dealing with traffic.”

That feeling of peacefulness and calm was particularly important to this group of citizens, who review child welfare cases in their respective states.

“It is a tough time for families as the economy sinks, and child abuse goes up,” said Hamilton. “I wanted our participants to leave the conference feeling good about what they were doing so they can keep up the good fight.”

            Courtesy Jackson Lake Lodge

The national parks’ ability to inspire might explain why visitation at Yosemite National Park in California has been little affected by the economy.

“National parks are a nurturing environment,” said Jonathan Farrington, regional director of sales and marketing for Delaware North Companies, which manages lodging and other visitor services at Yosemite and several other national parks. “People tend to come to them as a place to find themselves and do some soul-searching.”

It also helps that shareholders and business leaders tend to feel kindly toward national parks because of the wilderness the park’s protect and their mission to serve the American people.
“Shareholders have a different feeling about a meeting at a national park than they would if it was at a posh resort,” said Farrington.

Hamilton began planning his meeting well before Ken Burns’ documentary series
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea aired this fall, but it is fair to say that other meeting planners were probably inspired to think about having a meeting in the shadow of Half Dome or on the rim of the Grand Canyon after seeing the series.

When the series aired, the national parks’ reservation lines perked up for a time, and although most of the calls were from Americans dreaming of their next family vacation, there were also some inquiries about meeting facilities.

Documentary raised awareness

“It [the series] got a lot of public awareness and more attention for the national parks,” said Helen Morton, director of sales and marketing for Shenandoah National Park Lodging in Virginia, managed by Aramark.

Although there are 58 national parks, there aren’t a lot of options within them for meeting-goers. Many parks don’t have lodging save a rustic cabin or a campground; others have rustic lodges but no meeting space.

But the handful of national parks that do have both lodging and meeting venues actively pursue meetings and conferences.

Among the largest is Jackson Lake Lodge. With 385 guest rooms and 17,000 square feet of meeting and function space under one roof, the lodge is the largest hotel and conference center in Wyoming. It operates seasonally, closing in November and reopening in May.

Seventy miles west of Washington, Skyland Lodge in Shenandoah National Park, near Luray, Va., is also seasonal, open from early April to late November. With 178 guest rooms and a dedicated and historic conference hall for groups of 20 to 80, it has surprising availability in midweek throughout its season, as does Jackson Lake Lodge.

In contrast, summer is a tough time to book meetings at Yosemite National Park, where meeting spaces range from the modern Lodge at Yosemite Falls to the historic Ahwahnee and Wawona hotels. “The park service does have some balancing to do with [meeting] groups because [public] accessibility to the parks is paramount to the national parks’ charter,” said Farrington.

Mountaintop lodge not suited for high tech
Not every park is suited to every sort of meeting. Skyland, said Morton, is not a place for high-tech meetings.

   Courtesy Courtesy DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite

“We don’t have the infrastructure. That’s not what we sell,” she said. What the lodge and its conference hall are suited for is “the small meeting that wants to do something out of the ordinary and get away from the city environment and stay focused,” like the mayors and other community leaders from Prince William County, Va., who met at Skyland for the first time earlier this year.

“Before they finished their first meeting, they were scheduling their second and their third,” said Morton.

Jackson Lake Lodge draws a number of associations, corporate groups and incentives. It’s sometimes used by government leaders for meetings that require privacy. Its meeting space is equipped with wireless Internet, high-definition capabilities and most other current technology.
Earlier this year, the lodge spent just over $4 million to update its guest rooms, and the result got a thumbs-up from Hamilton, who saw the rooms before and after the work.

Guest rooms at Skyland are varied, from rustic cabins to more traditional hotel-style rooms with two queens. “We are not a Hilton,” said Morton. But Skyland has a selling point most upscale chain hotels do not: “Our traditional rooms have a balcony or a porch that looks to the west, toward the valley.”

The national parks are protected lands, and in many cases, the hotels and lodges built within them are protected as well. Skyland Lodge, Jackson Lake Lodge, the Ahwahnee and the Wawona are all National Historic Landmarks.

Lack of change is reassuring
“Jackson Lake Lodge was built in 1955, and it is a National Historic Landmark. Because of that, nothing is really going to change with the lodge, and I think that is what people appreciate. It is sort of stepping back and catching your breath. That is what we provide here,” said Patrick Davis, director of sales.

So guests who choose the Wawona, a sparkling white Victorian-style hotel in Yosemite but outside its busy valley, might have to share a bath. Fifty of its 104 rooms have shared baths. So charming is the little hotel that no one seems to mind:  “If you are staying there, you honestly don’t care,” said Farrington.

The Wawona, on a nine-hole golf course with river views, is popular for groups of 50 or fewer. Groups that buy out the property have access to all the public areas in addition to a small meeting room for about 50.

Because of its location in a quieter area of the 1,200- square-mile park, the Wawona is popular for religious retreats, corporate boards and groups focused on health and wellness, Farrington said.

The park lodges stay old-fashioned in other ways. Adding telephones in guest rooms is up for discussion at Shenandoah, but it hasn’t been done.

“There have never been phones in the rooms, and actually, some people love that,” Morton said. With cell phones, landlines seem less necessary, especially because cell reception is good on the mountain ridge where Skyland perches and wireless Internet access is available.

At Jackson Lake Lodge, there are no televisions in guest rooms. At first, Hamilton said, some of his attendees “groused” about the lack of television, but by the end of their stay, most were saying they had enjoyed not having the distraction.

“Our idea is to emphasize the natural sense of place,” said Levi Thorn, director of sales and marketing for the lodge.

Forget thread counts and flat screens
National parks aren’t about thread counts and flat-screen televisions, but about experiencing America’s wild and still untamed side, which is why planners need to include free time or organize outings in the park.

At Jackson Lake Lodge, a float trip down the Snake River, with breakfast beforehand on a gravel bar in the river, or dinner afterward, is one option. So gentle is the float that disabled attendees in Hamilton’s group comfortably made the trip, some with oxygen in tow.

Skyland operates its own stable, and guided horseback rides with a bag lunch prepared by the lodge chef can be arranged. TeamLink, a team-building company, takes groups rappelling and rock climbing. The lodge’s chef does demonstrations, whipping up pumpkin and squash casseroles or chicken Riesling.

At Yosemite, groups can ski at Mount Badger, bike through the valley, raft on the Merced River or ice skate with Half Dome looking over their shoulder.

Being removed is what makes many of the parks so special. Yosemite is a four-hour drive from San Francisco, but “when you come around the corner and see that valley view for the first time … the trip is rewarded. People never feel shortchanged,” said Farrington.

At Grand Teton, there’s no segue required: When guests land at the airport in Jackson Hole, they are in the national park. Take a left turn from the airport and it’s a 30-minute drive to the lodge, with the towering Tetons, the Snake River and abundant wildlife as companions.
Davis makes the drive daily. “I see moose, elk, bison, grizzly — you name it. Today I saw four moose and a bald eagle.”

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