Phish fanatics take over city hotels
BEND — Shay Reitan, an employee at the Mill Inn Bed & Breakfast, remembers the spring day when the band Phish announced it would play two dates in July at the Les Schwab Amphitheater.
She watched as empty spaces on the online scheduling program for the 10-room Mill Inn filled in one by one.
"I was sitting here and literally watched this thing book (the rooms) in an hour," Reitan said.
It was no isolated incident.
Peak tourism season in Central Oregon is here, and this week seems like the climax, with a multiday horse show and cycling races joining the Phish shows — the only Oregon dates on this year's tour.
Tourism and hospitality professionals call what's happening compression: a piling up of special events coupled with a resulting dearth of vacancies among nearly 2,000 hotel and motel rooms in Bend and 3,000 more elsewhere in Deschutes County, not including vacation rentals. Professionals note, too, that summer has another 1½ months remaining.
"We really see that compression through the middle of August," said Alana Hughson, president and CEO of the Central Oregon Visitors Association. "Coming into the week of the 17th of August, things will lighten up a little bit."
Phish fans started ringing the phones at front desks and filling in empty blanks in online reservation system in Deschutes County in March when the jam band announced it would kick off its summer tour at the Les Schwab Amphitheater.
Motel and hotel managers late last week said they still had a few rooms available for this coming weekend, but from Tuesday through Friday, a room in Bend is as rare as an albino trout.
"That Phish concert, we sold out months ago for that," said Luke Johnson, general manager at Three Sisters Inn & Suites. "That went pretty fast."
He said he expects the 100-room inn will be booked solid by the weekend. "July and August, especially July, we kind of count on every weekend being sold out," Johnson said.
If it seems like the city's gotten more crowded, numbers say it has. The amount of money collected in transient room taxes in Bend through 11 months of fiscal year 2014-15 reached $5.5 million, about $800,000 more than the city collected in all of the previous fiscal year, according to information from the Central Oregon Visitors Association. The room tax in the city of Bend increased 1 percent June 1, 2014.
Lodging-tax collections have grown steadily since fiscal 2008-09, when the city collected $2.6 million, 14 percent less than the previous year.
At the amphitheater, management is bracing for 8,000 people at each Phish show, with standing room only, and thousands more outside who come just to be part of the scene, said Marnie Smith, venue director. The amphitheater expects another 2,500 people at a Pink Martini concert Saturday. The band, incidentally, a dozen strong, is traveling back to Portland after its show, a decision it reached primarily due to lack of available hotel rooms in Bend, said Laura Hardin, a spokeswoman for Pink Martini.
Its fans are a different crowd, though, from the one that Smith expects for the two-day Phish event that started today and ends Wednesday.
"I would say Phish has a more intense fan base," she said. "It's a very sophisticated concert crowd; they typically go to a lot of concerts and roll with the punches. These are folks that are pretty easy to work with."
Smith said the amphitheater tries to manage its schedule to avoid conflicts with other high-profile events in Bend, but some bands, Phish among them, call the shots in terms of their scheduling.
That may complicate the local lodging picture, but having Bend as a regular stop on the touring schedule of popular musical groups is a big plus, said Doug La Placa, president and CEO of Visit Bend.
"When viewed cumulatively, this summer's concerts at the Les Schwab Amphitheater represent Bend's largest and most successful tourism event of the past eight years," La Placa wrote in an email Monday. "The Phish concerts represent a major milestone for Bend as a big music destination. The only other event I've seen generate a booking frenzy like this was the 2009 USA Cyclocross National Championships, and even that paled in comparison."
Wendy Kelley, co-owner of Wall Street Suites, said the 17-unit motel has been booked for months for the two nights around the Phish shows.
"We've had a lot of people booking to go to the concert twice," she said. "Summer is a busy time. We're 98 percent booked all summer; we can count on that. But this filled up the middle of the week, early."
Two other events this week overlap with the Phish concerts this week.
The McKenzie Pass Road Race, the first stage of the Cascade Cycling Classic, a five-day event, takes place Wednesday. The cycling event draws more than 800 people, including riders, mechanics, race officials and some family members, said Molly Cogswell-Kelley, sponsorship and media coordinator for the Cascade Cycling Classic. This year, finding lodging for some riders was a challenge, particularly the amateur riders, she said.
"The Phish concert has definitely had a huge impact on lodging," Cogswell-Kelley said Monday. "We always offer host housing, but we've never offered amateurs housing before. But we have to this year. No one can find a room."
Daily classes for the second week of the Oregon High Desert Classics at J Bar J Boys Ranch in Bend begin Wednesday. The equestrian event, a fundraiser for J Bar J, is expected to draw another 1,800 to 2,400 people to town this week, said show manager Dianne Johnson, who's been with the event since its inception 26 years ago. Many of the participants know from experience to plan ahead for lodging, she said.
Nonetheless, "they've had trouble," Johnson said. One couple from Idaho canceled plans to attend because they could find no accommodations. This year presented a challenge unlike any previous year in terms of finding rooms for equestrians, who typically come in groups of four or five per horse, she said. Many of the participants have the means to find and lease the accommodations they need, Johnson said.
"They're getting smart and renting houses for the next year," she said. "If they've been here before, they know they have to do it weeks out or even a year before."
Vacation rentals add another facet, although incomplete, to the Bend lodging picture. La Placa, of Visit Bend, wrote that vacation rentals constitute about 10 percent of the lodging inventory in Bend and contribute about 20 percent of revenue from total paid room nights. Of more than 600 short-term rental permits issued recently by the city, almost 400 paid the room tax in June, according to the Community Development Department.
"Clearly, this type of lodging is very popular among visitors," La Placa wrote. "We do not yet have data regarding how the recent surge in new vacation rentals will impact these percentages."
Space at local campgrounds was also at a premium.
At Tumalo State Park, an online search for space showed zero availability. At La Pine State Park, "Tuesday and Wednesday, we're pretty full," said Joe Wanamaker, park manager. "It's like 90 percent full."
Despite any inconvenience — unpracticed drivers on Bend roundabouts, hard-to-get restaurant reservations, for example — the benefit from tourism to the local economy is huge, and growing, La Placa and Hughson said.
Tourism each year brings nearly 3 million visitors to the city who pump about $650 million into the local economy, La Placa stated.
Tourism is on track to set a record for a fourth year in a row, with transient room tax collections up 23 percent in the new fiscal year, he said.
Meanwhile, the city Community Development Department is processing plans for four new hotels in Bend that would yield 310 new rooms if completed. The addition of new lodging in Bend lagged behind demand in the post-recession recovery, La Placa wrote.
Visit Bend and Central Oregon Visitors Association have focused marketing efforts the past two years at bringing more tourists to Bend during the offseason, or shoulder seasons, in order to spread tourism dollars evenly across the year. Summer will continue to rule that scene until fall, spring and winter events rival those of the sunny season.
"I don't have any concerns" about the strain on business resources that tourism presents, La Placa wrote. "Most small businesses in Bend need the tourism dollar to keep their doors open and to pay their employees. Being fatigued by too many customers is a rather elegant problem to have."