Awards recognize small town Montana

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – Nearly 450 Montana tourism and outdoor recreation representatives gathered April 15-17 at Big Sky Resort for the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Recreation.

A wide variety of large and small businesses and nonprofits had informative and interactive booths at the conference, promoting Montana-made products, their company’s services or organization’s cause. The wide swath of stakeholders included tour operators, conservationists, marketers, retailers and representatives from the hospitality and hi-tech industries.

“Each business and entity here has a stake in promoting Montana as a place to visit or do business,” said Emilie Saunders, Montana Department of Commerce communications director. “The state wants to inspire people to come to Montana, but these are the folks that make sure visitors have an exceptional experience here.”

The three-day conference had a full daily line-up of breakout sessions and lectures. Featured keynote speakers included Jay Baer, president of Convince and Convert, Marc Berejka, director of government and community affairs for REI, and members of Montana’s tourism marketing team, who share insight on how science and creativity come together to make successful marketing campaigns.

Other prominent speakers included Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, Montana’s Director of Outdoor Recreation, Rachel VanderVoort, and Montana’s Commerce Director, Pam Haxby-Cote.

“It’s a unique opportunity because Montana is so big,” said Department of Commerce Bureau Chief Jan Stoddard. “And once the summer comes everyone is so busy. It’s a chance to network, to really talk, and share resources.”

Jeff Guengerich, president of the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce and part-owner of Yellowstone National Park’s gas and service stations, was attending the conference for the first time.

“It’s great to see the collective passion for our state,” he said. “And it’s [reassuring] to realize that what’s happening in Gardiner might be happening elsewhere, and that it’s not an isolated issue. You feel less alone.”

Tourism is one of Montana’s top industries, bringing nearly 12.5 million visitors and $3.4 billion into the state’s economy last year.

The conference culminated on April 16 with the Montana Tourism Awards to celebrate the work of communities, businesses, organizations and people who did an exceptional job strengthening Montana’s tourism industry and maximizing its economic impact on the state’s residents.

Cooney opened the awards ceremony with brief, congratulatory remarks. “Tourism is one of Montana’s leading industries,” he said. “And although the landscape speaks for itself, much of the industry’s success is because of the men and women across the state who are working hard to develop tourism experiences, provide visitor services, and promote this special place. This is an opportunity to celebrate their work and their many successes.”

Visit Billings won Marketing Campaign of the Year for their “My Amazing Place” video campaign; Event of the Year went to Red Ants Pants Music Festival held annually outside of White Sulphur Springs; Virginia City and Dillon were voted most Film Friendly Community for accommodating the shooting of “The Ballad of Lefty Brown;” and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center took home the Heritage and Cultural Tourism Award. Edward DesRosier was named Tourism Ambassador of the year. DesRosier founded Glacier Sun Tours in 1992, which offers guided tours through Glacier and Blackfeet country with a local focus and Blackfeet perspective.

But arguably the most poignant part of the award ceremony was when Ovando, a rural community about an hour northwest of Helena with a population of 72, beat out the state capital and Butte for Community of the Year for establishing themselves as a stopping point for bikers on the Tour Divide Mountain Bike Race from Banff, Alberta, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico.

Adventure Cycling of Missoula nominated the town for the award based on its international reputation for hospitality and unique amenities for cyclists and hikers.

Ovando began establishing itself as a cycle-friendly community several years ago when residents went out of their way to assist bikers passing through. Since then, cyclists and hikers crossing Montana east or west along Highway 200, or north or south along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, have made the town a place to rest or refuel.

When the dozen or so Ovando residents convened on the stage to accept the award, they joked they represented about half of the town’s population.

One of the community members said that 20 years ago, they thought they were going to end up like “one of those ranching towns that just dries up and blows away,” but now their town is talked about around the world.

In closing, another Ovando resident shared one of the keys to becoming a tourist destination.

“Treat tourists like they’re friends and family, and they’ll keep coming back.”