Concessions Featured Topic at GWS Conference

Every two years, the George Wright Society (GWS) organizes a conference on parks, protected areas, and cultural sites. Representatives from multiple agencies, under a variety of designations, come together for a week of meetings, round table discussions, seminars, and networking opportunities. In the past, participants have included parks at all levels. Unfortunately, federal employees, including the National Park Service (NPS), were not able to attend the conference this year due to sequestration and travel restrictions. Park Service participation at the conference was greatly missed. Although federal representatives were not able to attend, the conference was still a huge success! Many groups from all over the world participated in the conference and learned a great deal from one another.

This year’s conference made history in more ways than one. For the first time in its history, the conference featured a session and discussions surrounding the NPS Commercial Services Program (Commercial Services). Specifically, conference participants discussed how Commercial Services and concessioners help manage natural and cultural resources in the national parks. A modified panel served as the basis for the group discussion, and participants showed a great deal of enthusiasm and interest in the program. Attendees from academia, other park groups, and volunteers with a variety of experience working with parks and concessioners joined the round table discussion. The group discussed a wide range of themes that highlighted the environmental efforts of the parks in partnerships with concessioners. Conversation topics included how the contracts and concessions operations are chosen, what types of businesses are operated within the parks, various contract types, environmental criteria that are included in concessions contracts, the contract term period, and what the overall partnership between the parks and concessioners looks like. The informative session also touched on overall contract management procedures and the Washington Area Support Office’s role in the program.

Here’s an overview of the issues that were discussed during the panel:

  • Several questions were generated about park and concessioner relationships. The first series of questions centered on education. Specifically, how are concessioners educated to work in parks, and how are concession staff trained and educated about the mission of NPS and the mission of the park? A discussion on the nature of the interaction between NPS staff and concession staff ensued, discussing situations that may lead to relationships being strained versus positive and collaborative. There was some interest in how often a former NPS employee becomes a concessioner or vice versa. One participant brought up an example of the GWS Park Break educational experience, which gives students a chance to work at a park and help to solve real issues the park faces.
  • Another topic that interested participants was image. Specifically, how are concessioners viewed throughout the NPS; how about their image within the broader public; and how do concessioners address negative public perception? In many cases, the visiting public does not know or make the differentiation between NPS staff and concessions staff. Many park visitors believe that the NPS manages the visitor services available. The participants wondered how concessioners address this perception, and how important is it that the public is aware of who is responsible for visitor services within a park setting.

  • International concessions operations were also a topic of discussion. Specifically, how are concessions managed in protected areas around the globe, and how could the NPS integrate best practices utilized by other countries for concessions management? Participants discussed the broad focus for concessions management and the importance of keeping local communities engaged. This includes using local staff and resources to operate the concessions. It was not clear if the NPS concessions have this same focus, although it was highlighted that many of the smaller businesses are family operated and utilize local community members as staff.

  • Discussions then turned to relationships between the concessioners and the other groups and agencies that protect wild areas. Participants considered how roles and responsibilities are distinguished between the various groups (e.g., the NPS, concessioners, USFS, and other local protected wilderness entities) that may overlap in particular geographic areas. The need to maintain the wild areas for the use of the visiting public was highlighted. It was noted that often, roles and responsibilities on each side are not clearly defined, which can cause conflicts to arise between agencies and local communities.

  • Lastly, but of substantial importance, was a discussion about safety and liability. This topic stemmed from the prior conversation about roles and responsibilities. For example, if partnership roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined, trails may become dangerous, and visitors and staff could be at risk of injury. Questions focused on how the NPS ensures that these roles and responsibilities are defined and that safety and liability is a priority in the management process.

  • All attendees voiced a high interest in inviting the concession representatives to the next conference and made clear their appreciation for the opportunity to learn more about the Commercial Services Program.