By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – While Candace Carr Strauss is the CEO of both the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky, and the success of each organization is mutually beneficial, they have very distinct roles and missions in the community.
“While the chamber focuses on strengthening and growing the business sector of the community, Visit Big Sky defines itself as “the official destination marketing organization for the Greater Big Sky Area.”
In short, it is the marketing engine for increasing tourism in Big Sky.
Visit Big Sky emerged from the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce/Convention Visitor Bureau (CVB) to become a separate nonprofit organization in 2013.
But the origins of its intent go back much further, explained Ryan Hamilton, president of the Visit Big Sky board of directors, and project manager of Big Sky Town Center.
“The recession is what brought us together,” Hamilton said, referring to the group of community stakeholders that joined forces in 2008 to secure Big Sky’s future as a tourist destination.
Hamilton said that from 2005 to 2007, when the global economic bubble was on its way to bursting, everyone was so busy that the community wasn’t really coming together.
“When the recession hit, we all had a lot more time,” Hamilton said. “We decided we needed to find a way to shore up our main season and decided that marketing the winter season was the best way to do it.”
One of the breakthroughs of that time was Big Sky Resort expanding with the addition of the Moonlight Basin terrain, and launching “The Biggest Skiing in America” marketing campaign.
Today, Visit Big Sky has an annual operating budget of approximately $1 million, which is funded by Montana Lodging Facility Use Tax dollars, Big Sky Resort Area District appropriations, and private individual and business investment.
The mission of VBS is to promote economic development through tourism marketing and promotion. It does this through selling Big Sky as a world-class, year-round visitor destination; improving the visitor experience; and increasing tourism-related revenues and jobs.
Visit Big Sky also works to raise public awareness of the positive impact of tourism on the economic vitality of the community, while also promoting the unique character of Big Sky.
The organization is in the process of finalizing a Tourism Master Plan that has been a process of distilling Big Sky’s identity, in order to be able to more effectively market itself to its desired visitor demographic on a regional, national and international level.
“Coming out the other side of the tourism master planning process, the plan is to put more money toward building summer tourism,” Strauss said. “Summer [tourism] has been growing faster than winter for a number of years, but there is still tremendous room for growth.”
Strauss took the helm of the chamber and Visit Big Sky in early 2017, and she’s approached both organizations as a fierce lobbyist with a clear vision and unwavering determination.
“[Visit Big Sky] has grown from its infancy into a toddler,” Strauss said. “The community got through that economic downturn, and now, the pendulum has swung in the other direction and we’re experiencing rapid growth, and [we are asking ourselves] what our role is in that, as the official destination marketing organization for the greater Big Sky area.”
Visit Big Sky is overseen by a member-elected board of directors. With the April 19 resignation of Big Sky Resort brand manager Glenniss Indreland, sitting board members include Hamilton; Dan Martin, Karst Stage; Tim Drain, Natural Retreats vacation rentals; Julie Grimm-Lisk, Jake’s Horses and Thrive; Steven Rager, River Rock Lodge and Resort Property Management; Crystal Snook, Big Sky Real Estate Co.; Krista Traxler, Yellowstone Club; and Ennion Williams, Big Sky Vacation Rentals and Big Sky Trout.
“Our board represents tourism stakeholder businesses in the community—both big and small businesses,” Strauss said. “We try to get a broad perspective so it’s representative of the community, and the canyon, meadow, and mountain destinations.”
Although this winter the snowfall did most of the heavy lifting in terms of marketing Big Sky to the rest of the world, Strauss continues to see plenty of opportunity for growth and improvement, including promoting winter recreation options other than downhill skiing and snowboarding.
“As we’ve had the most epic winter ever—thanks to Mother Nature, and the resort’s efforts—we’re looking toward shoring up other activities,” she said. “That’s where we’re be able to plug in and help.”
But, Strauss said, growing summer tourism is the next big push for Visit Big Sky. Currently, 70 percent of resort tax is collected in the winter and just 30 percent in the summer—the goal is to bring that closer to an even split.
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