When a woman from London bought 20 of his eclipse-themed t-shirts for her family back home, Rob Staffig-Piotter figured he was on to something. A year after he created the original design, the owner of Whitelace-n-Promises in downtown Casper has already sold 1,000 of the shirts, mostly to locals.
With the eclipse itself still three weeks away, Staffig-Piotter is gearing up for what he hopes may be Christmas-level sales surrounding the celestial event.
Tens of thousands of visitors are going to descend on Wyoming for the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21. For a state battered by low energy prices, the tourism influx is welcome. But uncertainty remains, making it difficult for merchants to predict sales with any precision.
Eclipse tourism is weird.
“It’s very difficult to project number of travelers,” said Tia Troy with the state tourism office. “We’re just asking people to prepare for what we anticipate to be a very large event.”
In Casper, the Wyoming Eclipse Festival is projecting 35,000 visitors. Fremont County, another population center in the path of the eclipse, is anticipating more than 15,000. Jackson doesn’t know quite what to expect, but thousands more tourists than usual are expected to flock to Teton County. But while hotel bookings and other data can help predict how many visitors will arrive before the event, thousands more could arrive by the time the eclipse begins just after 10 a.m.
In other words, the nature of an eclipse makes it difficult for business owners to plan.
“You have no way of knowing how much to order,” Staffig-Piotter said. “It’s something that’s never happened.”
In Fremont County, visitors bureau marketing director Paula McCormick said her agency has been encouraging vendors to anticipate a larger version of existing events, like Fourth of July in Lander — when the population nearly doubles for the annual celebration.
“Instead of doubling, maybe potentially we triple it,” she said.
Using annual events as a benchmark is a popular strategy in Casper, too. Mike Stepp of Donells Candies said that annual high school sports tournaments bring thousands of student-athletes and families to Casper.
While the eclipse festival will bring more visitors, it won’t be exponentially more than Stepp has seen descend on downtown in the past.
“We get 12,000 people in, sometimes, from out of town,” he said. “This is not hundreds times more than what we normally have. Its two or three times.”
That doesn’t mean Donells isn’t planning on catering to eclipse chasers. The shop will have themed chocolates — “we’ll just put some moon shapes on,” he said — and is working on special eclipse ice cream but hasn’t finalized flavors.
While the downtown plaza in Casper and several other bars in the area are hoping to open in time for the eclipse, local bar owner Matt Galloway is uncertain about whether the thousands of visitors will directly translate to food and alcohol sales.
Casper is making an exception to its blue laws for bar owners during the eclipse festival in August. Bars and liquor stores in the Oil City are allowed to serve and sell until 2 a.m. on every day but Sunday — when they must close four hours earlier.
“Are these just going to be the people who have their trailers and do grocery shopping?” he asked. Still, Galloway is hopeful that eclipse tourists will want to go out and try the local fare.
Wyoming Eclipse Festival Director Anna Wilcox has said that given Casper’s prime viewing location, directly on the path of full totality, she has invested energy in ensuring a positive experience for those who will inevitably come rather than trying to draw even larger crowds. The goal of Wilcox and other state and local officials is to turn eclipse tourists into return visitors.
“It’s something that will be good for years to come,” said Casper Chamber of Commerce CEO Gilda Lara, who imagines that perhaps some eclipse tourists will look to invest in the Oil City. “Our hoteliers are full with Japanese and international contingencies, so I can’t imagine, knowing and loving Wyoming like I do ... that they wouldn’t want to come back.”
The nation’s first total solar eclipse since 1979 is still nearly a year away. But communities spread across the United States are preparing to welcome massive crowds and the accompanying publicity and revenue.
Part of the hope for return visitors is rooted in the fact that once Casper hits capacity, there is a cap to the benefit of additional tourism during eclipse weekend. For example, restaurants fill up, and more potentially hungry customers don’t help.
But Natrona County, with its population concentrated in Casper, may have a more limited capacity than other parts of Wyoming like Fremont County, where tourists will be spread from Dubois to Jeffrey City.
There’s also more potential to absorb visitors statewide. Troy, with the tourism office, said marketing staff had worked to promote Wyoming as a destination nationally with the hope that the benefit will spill beyond the path of the eclipse itself, which stretches roughly from Jackson to Glendo.
The state’s tourism website highlights five different eclipse road trips that cover notable sites outside of the moon’s path. These include must-sees like Devils Tower and Fossil Butte National Monument as well as more local attractions such as the Rockpile Museum in Gillette and the Uinta County Museum and Train Depot.
What ties South Africa, the Bahamas, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia to Casper?
“We anticipate that this eclipse will have a positive economic impact not just in that path of totality but in communities outside of that path,” Troy said. Her agency has especially been targeting people driving to Wyoming from Salt Lake City, Denver and Rapid City.
That focus may be smart. Brook Kreder of Visit Casper, the organization sponsoring the eclipse festival, was cautious in her assessment of how many eclipse-crazed tourists would ever care to return to Casper. It may be easier to impress a family from Rapid City enough to bring them back than to count on another contingent of Japanese tourists summering in Casper in 2018.
“That might be a stretch,” Kreder said. “We’ve heard from the eclipse community that eclipse chasers chase eclipses.”
A boost — and then what?
Staffig-Piotter, of the Casper gift shop, said that he’s nervous about what may follow the eclipse sales boost. Revenue at Whitelace-n-Promises is up 50 percent this year, an increase that has come directly from eclipse merchandise sales.
In addition to the t-shirts, which feature an original design and were produced by 1890 Inc., another Casper business, Staffig-Piotter is selling eclipse mugs, shot glasses, coasters and other gifts.
“What are we going to do for next year?” He asked. “I mean, what can we do?”
Short of another galactic miracle — aliens crash-landing on Casper Mountain, Staffig-Piotter proposed — he wonders if the eclipse will boost future tourism.
“Hopefully they’ll love Wyoming enough they’ll want to come back,” he said.
In the meantime, Whitelace-n-Promises is planning to release a post-eclipse t-shirt on the day of the event.