By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – Community members gathered at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center on Jan. 8 to hear the findings of a study on Big Sky’s identity, to inform Visit Big Sky’s Tourism Master Plan. The results were based on an October brainstorming workshop with community stakeholders, a survey answered by 266 long-term residents, and online tourism sites like Trip Advisor.

As Destination Think Senior Strategic Consultant Frank Cuypers summarized in the October workshop, Big Sky’s DNA is “who you are, what you love—a sense of a place. And then, how you are projecting this to the rest of the world, and how it is being perceived.”

At that initial workshop, Visit Big Sky CEO Candace Carr Strauss said Big Sky’s identity must be refined before it can be successfully marketed as a tourism destination.

The results of the study indicate that Big Sky’s identity is fractured—it is not presenting a unified message of what makes it special and why people should choose it as a travel destination over another resort mountain town; and that there are gaps between how Big Sky perceives itself, what it is projecting, and how it is perceived by outsiders seen as potential visitors.

According to Cuypers, the more aligned these three components are, the stronger a place’s identity, or brand.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the study is Big Sky’s designation as having an extrovert personality, if you adhere to the theory that places, like people, typically fall into one of five personality types. While surprised by this result, Cuypers attributed it to living in a remote place required relying on other people.

Cuypers paraphrased another recurring trend in the study, by saying that Big Sky residents “are very happy about growth, wealth and prosperity but a bit worried about the pace of that growth.”

Echoing a sentiment heard in ongoing infrastructure conversations throughout the community, David Hough, a 66-year-old Big Sky resident who’s been here “as long as Big Sky has been here,” spoke up to voice concerns about drawing more people to Big Sky without the workforce to accommodate them.

“I feel that seeking to draw more people to the area is terrible catch-22, because we don’t even have the resources to meet the needs of the people who live here, not to mention the guests,” Hough said.

“I’m going to tell everyone the fishing is lousy, the drive is too long, and have them all go to Vail and Aspen,” he said. “Most people who live in Big Sky are happy with the amount of people that are here right now.”

Destination Think’s recommendations, based on the study’s findings, are that Big Sky needs to reshape its attraction by defining and connecting with niche markets to avoid becoming a mainstream, generic place. As Cuypers explained, Big Sky has been good about providing a “shopping list” of what it has to offer, but not necessarily the “why” they should make a difference to potential visitors.

“The challenge is, you will have to come up with a cemented framework to talk about Big Sky, underlying what makes this community unique,” Cuypers concluded.

“We have a lot of work to do but the good news is we’re already working on it,” Strauss said to the WMPAC audience. “There are a lot of steps already in place that will allow us to utilize this new information.”

Visit Big Sky aims to have the Tourism Master Plan completed in February 2018. View the full study on Big Sky’s DNA at visitbigskymt.com/dna_results/.