Businesses in Banff are bracing for a banner year as numerous factors drive tourists to the mountain town, including the federal government's offer of free admission to all national parks to mark Canada's 150th anniversary.
"Everything is hitting in our favour right now," says Mike Mendelman, chief executive officer of the Banff Hospitality Collective, which owns numerous Banff restaurants, night clubs, and a distillery.
"Canadians and Albertans are staying regionally, and we are definitely seeing more Americans than we have in a decade. It is very positive here," Mr. Mendelman says.
Trevor Long, general manager at the Rimrock Resort Hotel and president of the Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association, says that after a "tremendous year" in 2016, all indications are that 2017 will be just as busy, if not busier.
In 2016, between January and November, more than 3.6 million people visited Banff National Park, a 6.6-per-cent increase compared with the same period in 2015.
"Banff and Lake Louise are now on people's radar more so than ever before," says Mr. Long, pointing to publications such as National Geographic Traveler magazine, which named Banff National Park one of the top destinations in the world to visit in 2017.
Darren Reeder, executive director of the Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association, is expecting a surge in visitors this year, given the more than three million free passes that have so far been ordered through Parks Canada.
Additionally, Mr. Reeder says, many people in the regional market are watching their dollars and vacationing in Alberta, while the recent political outcome in the U.S. is leading some Canadians to stay closer to home.
The assortment of factors driving tourists to Banff has business owners like Bill Squarebriggs feeling optimistic.
"More people in the park will make more business for all of us," says Mr. Squarebriggs, president of Sunset Alpine, a company that sells promotional products to various local businesses. "Of course I'm excited."
But the expected influx of tourists also brings challenges. Businesses in Banff regularly face a labour shortfall, compounded by a residential vacancy rate that hovers around zero per cent.
Traffic congestion is another concern; if people get stuck in congestion or struggle to find parking, they may be less likely to visit local businesses.
"Banff struggles to find enough staff at busy times of the year, and this year will be no different," Mr. Reeder says.
Labour shortages in the hospitality industry can mean struggles to make rooms available on time, Mr. Reeder says, as well as meals arriving slower, front-line supervisors and managers juggling management responsibilities and making beds, staff working considerable amounts of overtime, and staff burnout.
The hospitality association recently partnered with the nearby Stoney Nation on a program for Stoney First Nation members to work in Banff and Lake Louise, while an experiment with the Calgary Hotel Association last summer saw hotel staff from Calgary bussed to Banff and Lake Louise to cover shifts, a program Mr. Reeder says will be revisited again this summer.
Mr. Mendelman says his businesses are not struggling to hire staff, as the economic slowdown affecting much of Alberta has brought many job seekers from Calgary and elsewhere in Alberta to town – something he has not seen before in his 25 years in Banff.
"With the unemployment rate being where it's at [in Alberta], labour is abundant in Banff," he says.
Mr. Reeder says another concern is traffic, what he describes as a "vehicular management problem."
"We can handle the people who come into the park, but in the town of Banff, just by design of the road system, it limits how many vehicles we can handle," Mr. Reeder says. "On peak summer days, we could be overwhelmed."
To that end, the association is reminding people to not wait until summer to enjoy the national park. Mr. Reeder is also asking visitors to go places they haven't been before within Banff National Park, and wants people to think about how they access the area and their own carbon footprint.
Stavros Karlos, a town councillor and project manager for the Banff Hospitality Collective, is hopeful that soon to be announced plans for increased transit services this summer will help the problem.
"Over the past three months, we've seen massive movement from Parks Canada to really recognize that we need a forward-looking modern transportation system," he says.
"We're hoping one of the legacies out of 2017 is that the federal government, and the community, in partnership with the province, really comes up with a long-term vision of how we would like to see people commute and get around in the national park."
Ossi Treutler is owner of Freya's Jewellery and Currency Exchange, a shop in the Clock Tower Village Mall on Banff's main street. The long-time business owner worries that all the attention on the free park passes and the anticipated bustle may scare some tourists away.
Treutler managed Freya's Jewellery in 1988, when Calgary hosted the Winter Olympics. He remembers much hype about how busy Banff would be caused visitors to stay away.
"I've seen how quiet Banff was during the Olympics," he says. "I'm hoping that doesn't happen this year."