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LIVINGSTON — One day late last week, Dan Vermillion, owner of Sweetwater Travel in Livingston, woke up to a flurry of emails. 

There were seven different requests to book his vacation rentals for up to six months. Normally, a booking is three days, five days, maybe a week. 

“Something had changed very quickly,” Vermillion said. 

Across Montana, the big sky and wide open spaces that attract tourists year round for skiing, fishing, hiking, and wildlife viewing are suddenly valued for a new reason: plenty of room for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

While short-term rental properties on sites such as Airbnb, VRBO, and Homeaway nationwide are seeing a downturn in visitors, business in Montana has been up, according to research from AirDNA, which compiles industry-wide booking data to provide short-term rental estimates.

Across the state, revenue estimates from short-term rentals increased year over year between 2019 and 2020 from $5.3 million to $9.4 million for the period March 1 through March 16, according to AirDNA. Nationwide, rural areas reported significant year-over-year gains, with urban areas seeing declines of as much as 27% in the same period. 

“Montana tended to follow some of the other trends of people appearing to be escaping major cities,” said Eric Fullerton, director of marketing for AirDNA, who grew up in Montana.

Fullerton compared the uptick of short-term renters seeking space in Montana to New Yorkers heading upstate and Chicago residents retreating to western Michigan.

Montana was among the last states to record a positive case of COVID-19, confirming its first case on March 13. The first case of COVID-19 in the U.S. was confirmed in the Seattle area on Jan. 21.

Health officials in Park and Gallatin counties raised concerns about the number of tourists visiting Montana when they asked on Sunday, March 22, that Yellowstone National Park be closed. Officials closed the park on Tuesday, March 24. Gov. Steve Bullock asked this week that Glacier National Park be closed as well.

“We’re concerned about anybody moving around right now,” said Matt Kelley, health officer for the Gallatin City-County Health Department, in an interview this week. “Our goal is to encourage people to stay home. If that home is here, that’s one thing, but now is not the time for tourism. Hunker down. Stay home.”

SECOND HOME CONCERNS

In addition to an increase in vacation rental revenue, some Montana communities have also seen an increase in the number of people who have retreated to second homes during the outbreak.

The community of Big Sky, where local residents occupy only 30% of the housing, has seen an influx of people occupying their second homes, said Candace Carr Strauss, CEO of Visit Big Sky.

In Big Sky’s 59730 zip code, short-term rental revenue estimates went up from $278,000 to $413,000 year over year in the first half of March, according to AirDNA.

Brooke Laird, owner of Key Property Management in Livingston, said 50% of the owners of short-term rental properties she manages are now occupying the properties. Normally, she said, they would not be in residence this time of year. In Livingston’s 59047 zip code, vacation rental revenue estimates in the first half of March went up from $152,000 to $315,000 over last year, according to AirDNA.

Laird, whose company offers concierge services for vacation rental guests, has recommended that she make grocery and pharmacy runs for homeowners to help them isolate, because many have come to Livingston from other parts of the country.

“Montana tended to follow some of the other trends of people appearing to be escaping major cities.”

—Eric Fullerton, director of marketing for AirDNA

Kelley said that local health departments don’t have any way of knowing when people take up residence in second homes or vacation rentals after traveling from locations with COVID-19 outbreaks. When a resident returns from international travel in areas with outbreaks, local health officials receive an alert from the state department of public health. 

Announcing a stay-at-home directive for Montana on Thursday, March 26, Gov. Bullock said the state can’t stop anyone from coming to Montana, but that the directive applies to people when they are in the state. If people are traveling from areas that are experiencing outbreaks, they should quarantine, Bullock said.

“Once you’re in the state, whether you’re a Montanan or not, I expect you’ll follow this directive,” he said.

Laird said the vacation rental business has been affected in two waves: first, renters wanted to know if they could cancel, and second, a flurry of requests from people wanting to rent for two to six months. Laird said she has canceled all bookings for as long as Montana schools are closed, which is currently through April 10.

“It’s important for us to not encourage people to come here,” Laird said.


Laird said she wasn’t sure how much of the year-over-year increase in rental revenue can be accounted for by people escaping coronavirus hotspots versus a simple uptick in business. 

“The vacation rental industry is definitely up,” Laird said. “Four years ago, I wouldn’t have had to cancel reservations in March and April because I wouldn’t have had [the requests].”

An answering machine at SkyRun Vacation Rentals in Whitefish played a recorded message saying the company has seen an uptick in calls, but is canceling all reservations through the end of April. In Whitefish’s 59937 zip code, vacation rental revenue estimates went up from $1.1 million to $2.1 million year over year in early March, according to AirDNA.

‘NO CHOICE’ BUT TO TURN DOWN REQUESTS 

Laird said the cancellations have hurt her bottom line, and the owners whose properties she manages.

“It’s tough, though, because I manage homes for owners who need income. It’s 100% of my income, but I feel like there is no choice,” she said.

Vermillion also turned down the long-term requests he received last week. Not only would he have had to cancel guests who had already booked rentals for summer, but he’s also focused on the more immediate future. 

“Whatever that was, as far as ‘I need a refuge,’ has slowed down,” Vermillion said. “Hopefully, soon, people will be looking for a different kind of refuge or a vacation. But that’s all dependent on the economy stabilizing.”

Fullerton said AirDNA expects nationwide revenue numbers to drop sharply after many states imposed shelter-in-place regulations. 

But the company’s data shows that rural destinations are anticipating a mid-summer turnaround.  

So far, Vermillion says, he hasn’t received any cancellations of reservations booked for later this summer. Laird said she’s received a lot of calls inquiring about her cancellation policies, but as yet no cancellations of summer bookings. 

This story was updated March 28, 2020, to correct Candace Carr Strauss’ professional title.

Johnathan Hettinger

Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston. Originally from Central Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois, he has worked at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Enterprise and the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Contact Johnathan at jhett93@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.