Whether considering its own history, current operations or future plans, time at Fantastic Caverns typically is measured in decades, not days or years. So, adjusting to a turbulent single year from the COVID-19 pandemic was a unique experience for the attraction north of town.
“There was a lot of uncertainty. We didn’t know how long we were going to be closed, and we didn’t know what was going to happen,” says Hubert Heck, Fantastic Caverns’ marketing director.
As the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Fantastic Caverns closed for three months and tourism as whole became one of the hardest hit industries. Reports by Tourism Economics show travel spending in the United States declined by 42% in 2020, dropping almost $500 billion from the prior year.
But Fantastic Caverns has a century of history behind it and company officials say one rocky year can’t change that.
First discovered in 1862, the attraction has conducted cave tours since 1867 and “ride-thru” only tours since 1962. It is owned by Russ Campbell and his sons Dave and Jeff, who purchased the business in 1992 from Mark Tremble. Although they run day-to-day operations, the Campbells prefer to stay out of the spotlight and declined to be interviewed.
Normally closed only three days a year, the pandemic-forced shutdown last year prompted employee furloughs. After a short period, Heck says Fantastic Caverns was granted a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which allowed the company to continuing paying some 40 employees as they stayed home.
The caverns reopened to the public in May and there were some visitors, but ticket sales went back up slowly.
“It was crickets,” Heck says. “But as we started to get closer to the Fourth of July, we started getting busy enough it was kind of like being in summer.”
In a typical year, the cave draws 120,000-150,000 visitors, with individual ticket prices ranging $17-$28. Declining to disclose annual revenues, Heck says attendance dropped 25%-30% in 2020. As the year went on, numbers rose, with November and December reaching close to projected seasonal levels. A big hit was the loss of large groups, such as bus tours from the Branson area, and traveling families.
As a result of the pandemic, Fantastic Caverns adjusted its procedures for tours, dropping tour numbers from the typical 30 to around 15. Cleaning was increased and masks were suggested for visitors, although not legally enforced because the cavern is outside of city limits.
“A lot of things were ever-changing,” Heck says. “When you’re in the business of hospitality, you’re trying to provide a good experience, but what is that good experience? A lot of that is perspective.”
Fantastic Caverns also received a $10,000 grant through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act awarded by the Greene County Commission. Heck says the funds helped pay for ongoing operating costs.
“Whether it was trash services or something else, when you’re shuttered for a couple of months you can kind of reassess and say ‘OK, we can drop this and pick it up mid-May,’ but we didn’t want to do that disruption in service,” Heck says.
Outside of the tours, Fantastic Caverns provides educational outreach and programming to area residents about maintaining natural water quality and cave conservation. Cave environments are fragile and susceptible to foreign bacteria or drastic changes in water levels and quality, Heck says.
Fantastic Caverns maintains the cave by utilizing the services of Protem-based Ozarks Underground Laboratory. Since 2016, OUL has worked with Fantastic Caverns on a variety of environmental issues, such as making sure parking lot improvements a few years ago had proper irrigation so water levels in the cave stayed steady.
About twice a month, OUL sends staff on the 75-mile trip northwest to Fantastic Caverns to check monitors positioned throughout the cave system to ensure the environment is maintaining natural conditions, OUL President Tom Aley says.
“Fantastic Caverns, right now, has probably the most extensive environmental monitoring program going on underground of any cave in the United States,” says Aley, whose company has participated in over 4,000 groundwater traces in the U.S. and Canada, along with international work as far as Australia and Indonesia. “They’re a real leader in taking care of the cave. That’s important to their business as an attraction, but you can’t have a high-quality natural attraction unless you maintain its natural integrity.”
Fantastic Caverns has contracted with OUL for about $100,000 per year in services since 2016, Aley says. Moving forward, he hopes to install permanent, automatic instrumentation for monitoring which will allow staff to better examine the cave from their Protem office.
At Fantastic Caverns, Heck says the future will focus on engineering a walkway through a collapsed cave system called Canyon Trail on the property. Previously accessible, the walkway was washed out by flooding in 2019.
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