While today’s timeshare giants continue to break sales records, not all resorts are affiliated with the top 15-20 companies, many with recognizable hotel names. Of the nearly 1,600 U.S. resorts, it is estimated by Richard Ragatz, Ph.D. of Ragatz Realty that the proportion of resorts not branded by these large companies is probably about 35-40%, due to many of them being older, smaller, legacy resorts like Meadow Lake Resort in Columbia Falls, Montana. Without the backing of large marketing budgets and national name recognition, many of these legacy resorts are challenged by issues involving resales, staffing and competition from short-term rental companies like Airbnb.
We asked Lance Lynch, Assistant General Manager of Meadow Lake Resorts, how his organization is taking on these projects and adapting to changing the travel industry. This is the second in a series of “State-of-the-Industry” articles as resorts tell us how they hope to overcome future challenges.
But first, a little history. Meadow Lake Development Corporation was formed in 1985 by Gilbert Lynch, Ron Holliday and Peter Tracy with timeshare sales starting in 1988. Gilbert was a silent partner, mostly providing financing until 2011, when he and his wife Joyce emerged from retirement to actively steer the resort. Lance Lynch is Gilbert’s grandson; he and wife Molly became involved with the property in January 2019. Lance’s uncle, Michael Lynch, and Aunt Jill Christopher are also on the team, making it a true family affair. Molly had been a teacher and Lance in business marketing. They were attracted to the resort by the beauty of the surrounding area. Molly works in Owner Services for the 4145 interval owners, half of whom are from Alberta, Canada with the balance from Montana and locals who enjoy day-use of resort amenities.
Meadow Lake Resort is a year-round golf and ski resort 17 miles from the lifts at Whitefish Mountain Resort and 20 miles from the entrance to Glacier National Park. The property includes a 114-unit timeshare resort, 24-room hotel and a Bar & Grille. The Montana retreat is surrounded by an 18-hole championship golf course and has its own private lodges at Whitefish Mountain and on Flathead Lake, the largest lake west of the Mississippi, in the lower 48 states.
According to Molly, “In the past few years, our timeshare listings have far outnumbered interested buyers. Until this year, we had an on-site salesperson, but closed our sales office due to lackluster results and a strategic decision to refocus on more viable channels of repurposing inventory. For resales, we partnered with a local real estate agent who understands our property. Gilbert and Michael are developing relationships with established vacation clubs – both ownership and member-based – to provide their members with Montana experiences at competitive prices. The entire team is embracing rentals as a way to benefit owners by replenishing reserves and putting money in their pockets.
“As a legacy resort with older owners, we must embrace today’s realities with today’s technology,” adds Lance, who is focused on rentals like a goalie on a hockey puck. “It is evident that many children of our original buyers do not want to take on the ownership, which is understandable given other channels for them to enjoy vacations such as VRBO, Airbnb and online travel agencies. “Our goal,” adds Lance, “is to meet and serve them on these channels.”
Short-term Rental Competition.
When general manager Chris Walters came on board about five years ago, he brought with him ample experience in the hotel industry and a spearheaded drive to generate rentals. The emergence of Airbnb and other short-term rental companies has increased the supply of rental properties in the Meadow Lake market, but it’s also increased the Resort’s ability to use these channels to get its inventory in front of a vacation-hungry public looking for high quality, condo-style Montana adventure. “Rather than perceive vacation rentals as a threat to our business,” Lance intones, “our mindset is to learn from the best and dominate our rental market. Our rentals benefit owners by funding reserves. Many short-term rental companies are hungry for more rooms to rent and have welcomed timeshare resorts onto their platforms. By adopting these new platforms, we have expanded our marketing channels and distribution.
“One downside of the increase in supply in our market from these short-term rental companies is that many of them have lower nightly rates for whole homes, thus competing directly with condo-style accommodations. To compete, we’re focusing on our sweet spot, Condo space, with resort amenities that include professional security, indoor and outdoor pools, adult-use hot tubs, fitness center, mountain and lake lodges, a restaurant, and spa,” adds Lance. “If they want an entire house, we have three of these to rent as well. As a legacy resort, we have a strong timeshare base but cannot ignore the direction in which timeshare/vacation rentals is clearly heading. We must now learn from what short-term vacation rentals do best and adopt the relevant tools to utilize for our resort.”
Meadow Lake Resort remains an RCI affiliate and popular exchange destination with their own returning owners. They enjoy other rentals through Expedia, and this year they piloted some VRBO rentals. Their challenge, however, has always been generating rentals outside of the peak seasons, which is structural and common to the Flathead Valley.
Staffing Challenges in a small town.
Meadow Lake does not outsource any employees but says that their entire area has a difficult time staffing during the busy summer season. Some other area businesses have had success by outsourcing employees. The resort fluctuates between 60 and 85 employees during the summer season.
When reading Resort Trades articles, Lance says that he generally focuses on the marketing articles that feature promotion strategy and social media advice while Molly enjoys reading about ownership articles, resort spotlights, and people stories. Lance and Molly were very detailed in sharing their thoughts for this story about their resort and its future challenges.
When asked to comment on their greatest “success story” for 2019, Lance added, “We have been very intentional in producing regular articles that inform our owners, posting them on our website. This is generating genuine excitement about some of our planned projects – such as updating our governing documents – and we have received strong positive feedback about the enhanced communication. Owners are thrilled to know that we are thinking about changing things up with a document restructure. They love seeing that we are working with their futures in mind.”
Their push on marketing – especially in the onsite restaurant – has had a positive impact on revenue, with 23% growth at the restaurant over the past year. They ran special promotions, ads, and participated in local community events, such as chamber of commerce events and fundraiser golf tournaments, creating online content and stimulating buzz both online and locally for the resort.
Lance and Molly look to their future at Meadow Lake with tremendous optimism. Millennials themselves, they understand the emerging generation’s strong demand for authentic travel experiences. They know that National Parks are hot, and few hotter than Glacier, the gates of which are a few miles down the highway. All the new technology makes it possible to get the word out.
Shares Molly, “It is important to understand who you are as a resort and what you have to offer the world. Once you harness the things that make your resort special, you can let that drive the direction of evolution and change. We believe in what Meadow Lake Resort has to offer because between the community, the wild Montana environment, and the endless opportunities for adventure, it’s in harmony with our lifestyle as well as with what we know many travelers seek to experience. It’s easy to do the work for something you know and believe in.”
About the Author. Marge Lennon began her career as a timeshare publicist in 1978 and has been writing about resorts and their people ever since. Happily, she has also visited scores of properties from Maui to Massachusetts during her front-row seat to the industry’s growth. She loves to tell other people’s stories and can be reached at Marge@LennonCommunications.com