State tourism office holds public strategic
planning session in Big Sky

By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

BIG SKY – The future of Montana
tourism is in your hands.

The Montana Office of Tourism and
the Tourism Advisory Council are
holding a strategic planning session in
Big Sky on Oct. 25 from 9:30 – 11:30
a.m. at Buck’s T-4. The tourism groups
are inviting community members
from around the region to weigh in on
individual and collective statewide priorities,
actions and goals for Montana
tourism over the next five years.

This is one of about 20 such community
input sessions being held this fall
in at least 15 communities around the
state. This year is the fifth in a series of
statewide strategic planning sessions
since the early 1990s.

Julie and Jim Cerenzia of Open Window
Consulting in Bozeman will facilitate
the discussions, asking participants to
share what their tourism business or
organization wants to accomplish in
the coming five years, and how those
objectives “can be brought together for
a larger cooperative effort to support
the tourism industry and its economic
benefit for the state,” Julie said.

A variety of tourism organizations
and businesses attended workshops
in Butte, Missoula, Kalispell, Whitefish,
Cutbank and Great Falls in early
October, Julie said. Other sessions will
be held in Billings, Wolf Point, Miles
City, Hardin, West Yellowstone, Livingston,
Bozeman, Red Lodge, Helena
and Lewistown.

“Tourism has remained an important
part of the Montana economy, even in
the economic downturn,” said Victor
Bjornberg from the Montana Office of
Tourism and Department of Commerce.

He credits this, in part, to Montana’s
tourism marketing strategy over
the last five years. This included the
completion of the Montana Brand,
something used by the office of tourism,
state tourism regions, convention
and visitor bureaus, private-sector tourism
industry partners, and other state
travel offices.

The 2012 outreach sessions are aimed
to prioritize resources, and “see how we
can keep moving tourism and recreation
in a positive way in Montana,” Bjornberg
said. One goal is to spread visitation
around the state, making it a four-season
travel destination.

Big Sky Resort’s sales and marketing
director Meg O’Leary is has been on
the Tourism Advisory Council the past
two years. Appointed by the Governor,
the TAC board advises the office of
tourism on marketing, vision, and how
to spend the money it collects from the
statewide 4 percent bed tax. TAC met
with Open Window to help lay the
groundwork for the sessions.

“We’re in a great spot to get a really
clear direction, and go deeper and
[become] more efficient,” O’Leary
said. She hopes to see discussion about
“where we want to be, and not just in
the five year plan. I’d like to see people
thinking about where we want to be
long term.”

“I’m hoping everybody in [Big Sky]
goes to this thing to get a grasp of the
big Montana picture. Everyone in town
is a stakeholder. We’re all here because
of tourism.”

Approximately $16 million of the
annual bed tax collections goes to the
office of tourism for driving visitation.
“This a lot of marketing money,”
O’Leary said. “It could have a really big
impact in addition to what all of us are
already doing.”

Ideas from workshop attendees could
make a “huge” difference, she added.
“Please come. Your input will be valuable,
and this will sit for the next five
years. It’s a big blueprint, a road map.”

Montana has seen steady growth in
non-resident visitation and spending in
recent years, according to the Montana
Office of Tourism. For the last three
years, the state has led the nation in
summer hotel occupancy rates during
July and August.

The latest reports from the Institute for
Tourism and Recreation Research show
statewide lodging tax collections for
the first two quarters of 2012 up 9 and
13 percent, respectively.

For the Big Sky CVB area, the 2012
collections for this same period were up
1 percent in the first quarter and down
11 percent in the second quarter. That
decline is in comparison to the 2011
second quarter, Bjornberg said, which
saw a 75 percent jump in collections
from the previous year. Big Sky’s 2012
second quarter collections (at $97,703)
were the third highest in history, just
behind 2011 and 2007.

In 2011, Montana saw 10.5 million
visitors and $2.7 billion in non-resident
visitor spending. The last time spending
was at this level was in 2008,
Bjornberg said. With just more than $3
billion spent by visitors, 2007 was the
record year.

“Tourism is an economic engine and
also something that can protect our assets
and the quality of life in Montana,”
Bjornberg said.

Registration for a strategic session is
requested. Visit the 2013 Strategic Plan
web page to register or provide input
through an online survey:
travelmontana.mt.gov/2013StrategicPlan.