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Convulsion In National Park Concessions

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The Village Inn at Apgar in Glacier National Park will be run by Xanterra Parks & Resorts after long being managed by Glacier Park Inc. David and Kay Scott photo

Concession operations in the national parks underwent some important changes during the last couple of years. Long-time concessionaires in two major parks failed in attempts to win contract renewals with winning bidders being companies with extensive National Park Service concession experience. Xanterra Parks & Resorts and Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts were big winners and grew ever larger in the universe of major national park concessionaires. Aramark Parks and Destinations suffered key losses in Shenandoah and Olympic national parks, while another of its other major concessions in Mesa Verde National Park is currently up for bid.

While the big have gotten bigger, there remains room for individuals and small businesses that continue to operate such smaller concessions as firewood sales, canoe rentals, fishing charters, and vending services. These types of businesses offer little incentive for the major concessionaires that consider them more of a distraction.

The increasing concentration of large concession contracts among a few companies is in part due to NPS concession prospectuses becoming increasingly complicated, thereby requiring an experienced staff to understand, evaluate, and bid on the major contracts. In addition, the National Park Service is increasingly requiring that bidders agree to invest substantial funds in improvements and new construction during the term of the contracts. This requirement stems in part from the significant amount of deferred maintenance that exists in national park facilities, but also appears to be the result of a desire of the NPS to force concessionaires (and, thereby, visitors who patronize concession facilities) to make up for declines in government funding. The recent 20-year Yellowstone National Park prospectus awarded in 2013 to Xanterra stipulated outlays of $145 million over the term of the contract.

Several major concessions, including Mesa Verde and Grand Canyon South Rim, are currently out for bid, while the Yosemite National Park prospectus will be issued in the near future. Yosemite served as Delaware North’s introduction into the national park concession business when in 1993 it was the sole bidder for the Yosemite concession that had been operated for nearly 100 years by Curry Company. Delaware North more recently received an extension on its Yosemite operation through 2014 while the NPS prepares a new prospectus. This will be a huge contract that is likely to attract the interest of a number of large hospitality firms.

With the major concession changes that have occurred, it may be worthwhile to review some of what has taken place during this past year, plus a couple of items from 2012.

Blue Ridge Parkway - Peaks of Otter Lodge, the largest of the four lodging facilities on the parkway, opened in July 2013 under new concessionaire Delaware North, which was awarded a 10-year lease in April 2013. The lodge had previously been operated by a hotel management company out of Virginia that apparently had little interest in continuing at Peaks. The parkway’s Rocky Knob Cabins continue to be operated on a short-term lease, while further south on the parkway, Bluffs Lodge has failed to open for the last several years for want of a willing concessionaire. Pisgah Inn, at the southern end of the parkway, will soon be up for a new contract on which the current long-time independent concessionaire is expected to bid.

Glacier National Park - In a real stunner (at least to us), in August 2013 Xanterra was awarded the 16-year concession contract to operate visitor facilities in Glacier. Xanterra replaces Glacier Park, Inc. (GPI), which had been the park’s prime concessionaire since 1981. The change in concessionaires was surprising in part because of the large investment required of a new concessionaire, most of which was to pay GPI for its possessory (ownership) interest in the park’s facilities. GPI continues to own and operate a motel unit inside the park at Lake McDonald along with Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier, St. Marys Lodge in St. Mary, and Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park to the north in Canada that are not in the park and are not operated as NPS concessions.

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Aramark Parks and Destinations lost the contract to concessions in Shenandoah, where Delaware North now is in charge. David and Kay Scott photo.

Kings Canyon National Park - In March 2013 Delaware North was awarded the 10-year concession contract to operate lodging, retail, and food services at Kings Canyon National Park. Delaware North has been the concessionaire at Wuksachi Lodge in neighboring Sequoia National Park since the late 1990s, so the company’s interest in the Kings Canyon operation wasn’t a surprise. The Kings Canyon commercial operation with lodges in Grant Grove and Cedar Grove was previously operated by Asilomar Management Company.

Mount Rainier National Park - Rainier Guest Services retained the concession at this Washington state park when it was awarded a 10-year contract in October 2013. Two years earlier, Guest Services was awarded a 10-year contract to operate the Stehekin lodge in Lake Chelan National Recreation Area (North Cascades National Park Complex).

Olympic National Park - In yet another surprise, Delaware North in mid-2012 was awarded the 10-year contract to operate lodging, retail, and food service at Kalaloch Lodge, one of four lodging facilities in Washington state's Olympic National Park. The surprise stemmed from the fact that it beat out existing concessionaire Aramark, which is also the concessionaire for the park’s three other lodging facilities, plus one nearby facility, Lake Quinault Lodge, on national forest land. With an extensive Olympic operation already in place it would have seemed that Aramark could have had a major leg up on its competitors.

Shenandoah National Park - Aramark, the long-time concessionaire in this Virginia park, failed in its bid to win the new 10-year Shenandoah contract that was awarded in late 2012 to Delaware North. Aramark had been the park’s main concessionaire since 1972 when, operating as ARA Services, it acquired Virginia Sky-Line Company. Like Xanterra/Yellowstone and Delaware North/Yosemite, Aramark was so closely associated with Shenandoah for such a long period that its failure to win the new contract was a real shocker.

Yellowstone National Park -- Xanterra was awarded a 20-year contract in early 2013 that allowed it to continue as the major concessionaire in America’s first national park. The award to Xanterra was not a surprise, but Yellowstone is a real plum that would likely appeal to other major concessionaires. The unusual 20-year contract length served as an offset to the huge investment requirement of nearly $135 million, most of which will be spent in the Canyon area that is to be substantially upgraded.

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Thanks, David and Kay, for an update on park concessions.

What a shame about Bluffs Lodge on the Blue Ridge Parkway? It seems to be forgotten. Yes, it needs updating but the old-fashioned facilities were part of its charm.

Any word on the coffee shop at the same site?

It appears Bluffs coffeeshop will be part of the same prospectus as the lodge. In other words, they both stay closed or open together. Bluffs had always been one of our favorite stops on the parkway.

Why do I think the operator of the Pisgah Inn may have difficulity when their contract is up?

The monopolistic big-boys may find them 'a distraction', but that doesn't mean there isn't favoritism in the auxillary concessions as well: [color=#0000ff][/color]

Once again, note there were apparently no consequences for the NPS perps.

Even though concessionaire Bruce O'Connell ruffled some feathers during the government shutdown, he appears to run a good operation at Pisgah that is likely the only profitable lodging facility on the parkway.

Noticeably absent from this list is Great Smoky mtns National Park. That is until Ditmanson is officially gone and his crony concessionaire friends will have to rub their noses on the new Superintendent. Horse stables, Leconte Lodge, preferred guide services with business steered their way will no doubt continue to trip over themselves to emphasize how they perform at the leisure of the King in their court. I doubt much will change but it rarely does. Leconte will continue their concession contract as long as they do the bidding of park overlords and advance the agendas of those who sign the contracts.

Existing concessionaires for relatively small government contracts are often selected as "preferred offerors," meaning they are permitted to retain contracts by matching the best bid. This is standard NPS policy for its concessions. It certainly wouldn't apply to the Grand Teton lodging contract that was awarded to GTLC, but would lilkely apply to contracts such as the one for a guide service mentioned in this story. The competing firm in this case appeared to be upset that information about its bid was shared with the existing concessionaire, but that would seem to be necessary and entirely legal in the event the existing concessionaires were classified as preferred offerors.

Aramark, Xanterra, Delaware North and Forever Resorts are all suspect and launder money thru the Park system. They produce substandard food service with attitude and I believe the concessiions should be run by local businesses nationally. The New Mexico (Santa Fe) concessioinaire wins bids due to minority preference which in one way is favorable yet in another harmful to local businesses. to wit: Adadia National Park.

Thank goodness Glacier Park still runs the Lodge, St Marys and Prince of Wales. St Mary Lodge serves sterling cuisine!

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