YELLOWSTONE LAKE HOTEL — A 50-passenger bus traveling from Bozeman arrived here before opening day this spring, but not with the usual cargo of Asian tourists now so commonly seen in Yellowstone National Park.

Instead, the bus was filled with large flower arrangements for a VIP dinner.

“We didn’t know if the pass to Cody would be open or not,” said Trey Matheu, 44, executive director of operations for Xanterra Parks & Resorts in Yellowstone National Park.

So although Cody, Wyo., is closer to the hotel, concern about whether Sylvan Pass would be cleared of snow in time for the May 14 opening required Matheu to order the flowers out of Bozeman, 50 miles and an hour-and-a-half further away.

Tough location

Such are the unusual considerations necessary to run a large business catering to tourists in a remote area. In fact, the hotel on the shores of Yellowstone Lake is only about 30 miles north of the most remote location in the lower 48 states, the venerated Thorofare Valley.

Catering to hundreds of tourists every day, the hotel has to deal with all of the usual attention to detail any service-oriented business would, along with the added challenges of Mother Nature’s unpredictability.

“The forest fires obviously throw a cog in anybody’s work,” Matheu said.

Fires can close down roads necessary to haul supplies from Xanterra’s warehouse in Gardiner, 55 miles to the north.

“It’s a lot of planning and hoping they get everything on the truck and, if not, we have to improvise,” said Howard Goodman, Xanterra’s executive chef for all of the company’s restaurants in the park.

“A menu change is not something to be done easily,” Matheu explained. “We have to look at the whole supply chain.”

A good wind storm can knock the power out for a couple of hours. Yet Matheu and Goodman love the challenge and the opportunity to work inside the United States’ first national park where grizzly bears, bison, elk and wolves are the permanent residents.

Newbies

Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges is that 70 to 75 percent of Xanterra’s summer staff of about 2,600 employees are new to Yellowstone. Only about one-quarter are returning staff and managers who actually know what’s going on.

That means bringing workers up to speed as quickly as possible. Only 10 days before a facility like Lake Hotel opens the wait and cook staff is brought in, some of them arriving from the Far East, South America and Eastern Europe on work visas.

“It’s a very regimented setup,” Matheu said, including a staff dinner the night before the hotel opens to give the kitchen crew and wait staff a test run.

Then it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire. The hotel is often fully booked, all 153 rooms, and the restaurant will serve 500 dinners on a peak night. The rustic Old Faithful Inn, another of Xanterra’s large properties in the park, will serve 700 dinners on a peak night.

Despite the pressure, Goodman said he is not a fan of “Hell’s Kitchen” type cooking, where the chef yells at the staff as in the well-known television show.

“They are so anxious to do it right,” Goodman said of his staff. “They’re like little sponges.”

Preparation is key

So obviously there is a lot of planning for the summer season, which last year saw a record-setting influx of more than 4 million tourists to Yellowstone.

Matheu said that planning starts with his core staff of managers as soon as the doors close in the fall and continues through the winter. By December any changes are identified and by January staff is being hired for the next summer. Training starts in April and then the doors open in mid-May.

“It’s something that is really dialed in from a logistics point of view,” Matheu said.

Despite the bustle and what at times may seem like organized chaos, spring is Matheu’s favorite time of the season.

“All of the people coming from different parts of the world, there’s a palpable excitement,” he said.

“Two weeks ago there were shutters on all of the windows,” Matheu said, his hand sweeping across the dining room to point out the now cleaned and decorated hotel.

“We’re operating some of the most prominent properties in the National Park system,” he added. “Yellowstone is an incredible opportunity.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.