After a hectic summer, things have started to cool off in the Eastern Sierra, propelled more so than normal by National Forest closures.
Although the forests closed last year at around this time, the call came down after Labor Day weekend; this year, it came only a few days before the weekend.
Emily Bryant, Mammoth Lakes Tourism Office Manager, reported at the non-profit’s monthly board meeting on Thursday that her line received 240 phone calls on the day of the closure; she was able to answer 87.
Board Treasurer John Morris, who also serves as Chairman of the Mammoth Lakes Lodging Association, reported that lodging over the holiday weekend was down anywhere from 15-40%.
While much of the Eastside remains smoke-free, the fires raging to the north, namely the Caldor and Dixie Fires, combined with dry conditions, means its likely that the Foresy closure will be extended past the September 17 deadline.
The closures and decline cap what had been a record-setting summer for Mammoth Lakes. Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) and Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID) collections in June and July broke previous records for those months.
Mammoth Lakes Tourism Executive Director John Urdi displayed a graph comparing local lodging occupancy rates from 2021 against a 5-year average; rates have remained consistent for the most part while tax revenues have increased.
The occupancy rate for June 2021 was 50.3%, down from the 2015-2020 average rate of 51.6%
July was a similar story, clocking in at a 65.6% occupancy rate for 2021 against a 67.9% average rate from 2015-2020.
Despite the consistency over time and small dips, June TOT collections beat the previous record by $430,568, up 39% over the previous record. In July, it was the same story: $582,231 over the previous record for a 31% gain.
TBID was also up over previous years, although with less substantial gains. Urdi explained the difference as a result of price changes: lodging prices are much more flexible than retail or restaurant prices.
Urdi chalked up the monetary increases despite no gain in occupancy rate in part to lodging properties increasing rates, an inference that Morris confirmed for the property he manages.
While collection numbers haven’t been released for August yet, the occupancy rates show a much larger difference than the previous two months. Where the August average occupancy from 2015-2020 was 65%, in 2021, it was 50.6%.
Morris said that business at lodging establishments began to slow down right after Bluesapalooza in early August, and that occupancy rates during August festivals like Rock ’n Rye and the Mammoth Margarita Festival were lower than normal.
He also asked how vacation rentals may have impacted revenue figures, as the number of available rental units has undoubtedly increased since the last inventory study.
Despite the August drop off, things aren’t as bad as they could be, Urdi noted. “We’ve got some silver linings as far as not dying on the vine like some of our brethren around the state,” he said; “We’re down but not out,” Morris added.
The Town and MLT’s coffers were not the only ones seeing a boost at Thursday’s meeting; Urdi’s annual performance review came up later in the agenda.
The review committee consisted of Morris, MLT Board Chairman Jeremy Goico, and Secretary Jess Karell, with input coming from MLT board members and employees.
Urdi declined a bonus and raise last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
60% of the bonus is tied to TOT and TBID increases; a minimum 4% increase over a 3-year average in TOT nets 30% and a minimum 2% increase over a 3-year average in TBID nets another 30%.
Fiscal Year 2020-2021 collections came in below the average for both metrics.
The remaining 40% of the bonus was tied to board and staff evaluations.
Both scored Urdi at high rates across the board, with lowest average marks coming in Community/Business outreach and interaction for the board review and recognizing strong good performances for the staff review.
Regarding community outreach, one comment read, “I know there have been efforts put into this, however this needs to be a top priority. We need to be partners with Town Council and Staff now more than ever.
One self-identified newer board member wrote, “I am somewhat surprised at the lack of relationship and neutral-to-lacking image that the Director has in the community at large, especially after 10+? years on the job. I do think that we need a strategy to try and reverse/improve that image.”
Urdi scored highly in work with community groups, driving TOT and TBID revenue, and for his work with the MLT Food Bank and local vaccination efforts. Many comments cited time spent volunteering locally as well as work on the Bishop air service projects.
Morris summarized the reviews as overall very positive, pointing to the challenges faced by the organization over the past year and a half. The group opted to grant Urdi a 2.25% bonus (based on current salary) for both staff and board review, 3/4 of the possible amount.
“We felt it was a job very well done with room for improvement and that’s kind of how we landed at the 75% mark,” Morris said of the review board’s decision.
Two unanimous votes from board signaled agreement with the review board, granting Urdi a total bonus of $9,300.90.
Additionally, given his foregoing of a raise the previous year and the need for a smooth transition to air service Bishop, the board granted Urdi a 3% salary increase that amounted to $6,200.55. Board member Lynda Salcido confirmed with Morris that the base salary now sits at around $212,000.
Finally, the board bid adieu to Michael Ledesma, who announced his resignation from the board at the end of the meeting. “I feel I’ve been a part of something special,” Ledesma said of his time on the board, “Between business and life commitments, I felt this was a really good time for me to retire, and let you guys continue on doing what you’re doing.”