Chamber repositioning Big Sky as ‘summer-winter wonderland’
By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

BIG SKY – Two different Fam trips this September will bring key players in the travel industry to Big Sky, according to the Chamber of Commerce.

Short for ‘familiarization’, Fam trips are common in the industry, and are part of a strategic “Big Sky Repositioning Program,” said the Chamber’s new executive director Kitty Clemens.

“It’s all about the fact that we’re more than one dimensional,” Clemens said. “We have more than just a vertical product… We’re more than ski[ing]. We have lots to see and do, and we need to tell the world about it.”

The proximity to Yellowstone National Park is key, she said, as are the “new product investments in the community,” noting Big Sky Resort, Lone Mountain Ranch and 320 Ranch especially.

The first trip, Sept. 4 – 7, brought five journalists to town from regional and national publications. The group included New York City freelance team Laurie Heifetz and Richard C. Murray; San Francisco-based family travel writer/trekaroo.com founder and CEO LiLing Pang and her two young sons; Rob Carey, a freelancer from Corporate Meetings and Incentives and Golf Business; and Cynthia Logan, managing editor of the BoZone Arts & Entertainment magazine and a Bozeman-based freelancer.

The journalists headed to Yellowstone and toured Big Sky alongside travel and hospitality public relations guru Ken Ellens. The plan was to show the group some of the new developments in the Big Sky area with a focus on activities, business and civic changes.

“It’s like a barn-raising,” Chamber president David O’Connor said in a press release sent to the journalists. “The whole community is leveraging the diverse skill set in our town to create something that will set the multi-season bar for Montana tourism for years to come.”

The Chamber reimbursed the journalists’ travel expenses with money from the state tourism office.

The PR work Ellens did leading up to this trip caught the attention of several other prominent writers interested in visiting later in the year, Clemens said.

“I think there’s a really positive story to tell [here] about economic success in the face of the national economic downturn,” O’Connor said in a phone interview prior to the journalists’ arrival.

The second promotional trip, a MegaFAM run in part by the Montana Office of Tourism, will bring 44 tour operators from France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the UK.

The first trip of its kind to come to Big Sky in at least five years, it will bring a mix of group and FIT (frequent individual travelers) operators to town Sept. 8 and 9.

International tour operators are “responsible for funneling information, setting up individual tours and reservations, and also group tours,” said Big Sky Resort National Sales Manager Katie Grice.

Grice worked with the state tourism office and the Chamber to schedule the site visit at the resort that would “best represent the Big Sky community.” The operators will stay at the resort, have a meal at Buck’s T-4, and have opportunities to do a variety of adventure activities typical of the area.

The services the operators offer are very popular for international guests, Grice said, comparing them to domestic online travel companies like Travelocity and ski.com. Having these operators in-the-know about Big Sky is a strategic move, particularly because international guests typically stay seven to 14 nights, while a domestic stay averages five to seven nights, Grice said.

The packages the FIT operators create have “huge multiplier affects,” Clemens said. “They have large groups of loyal customers that buy their packages, [which] gives us opportunities that we’d never have in any other way to expand our visitation base from multiple countries.”

The tour will spend three other nights in Montana, also visiting Bozeman, Billings and Red Lodge, then head to South Dakota.

“The whole purpose is for the tour operators to come and experience the products so they can go home and sell it to clients and put it in their itineraries,” said Marlee Iverson, Travel Trade Manager for the Montana Tourism Board. “We do see an increase in product offerings in their brochures, so all of Montana will benefit from this tour.”