Montana tourism industry vibrant, growing

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – Montana’s recreation and tourism industry will gather at Big Sky Resort on Sunday, April 15, through mid-day Tuesday, April 17, for the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Recreation. The convention features leading voices in the industry, breakout sessions, outings, and representatives from businesses and organizations across the state.

The event culminates in the Montana Tourism Awards banquet at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 16, featuring Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney.

Last year, 12.5 million travelers visited Montana spending nearly $3.4 billion in the state’s retail stores, restaurants and hotels. Although Gov. Steve Bullock will not be in attendance at the conference, EBS reached out to the governor for his thoughts on one of Montana’s leading industries. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Explore Big Sky: What do you see as Montana’s greatest tourism asset?

Steve Bullock: Montana’s spectacular unspoiled nature, our charming towns, and the people across our state that serve as ambassadors to visitors from across the country and around the world.

EBS: How do we increase tourism while preserving the natural environment that draws people to the region?

S.B.: We are promoting Montana with a focus on sustainable growth of the tourism industry, by highlighting the incredible places to visit and things to do [in] the national parks, in different regions of the state, and at different times of year.

Visitors seek out Montana because they place a high value on the ability to create their own authentic experience, whether that’s hiking across public lands, fly-fishing on one of our blue-ribbon trout streams, or enjoying a pint of locally-grown craft beer at a Montana brewery.

EBS: What are the opportunities and challenges for the tourism and recreation industry in Montana?

S.B.: Montana has an incredible opportunity to keep telling its story and showing the world that this is the premiere place to bring your family for an epic adventure, or simply a weekend road trip. With increased air service [in recent years], it’s easier than ever to get to Montana.

We know there’s an increasing demand, particularly among international visitors, to experience authentic American Indian history and culture. The state is working closely with its tourism partners and tribal tour operators to make these experiences more accessible and promote them in a sustainable and respectful way.

We are competing globally for the same visitor as some states and countries with very hefty budgets. This means we need to continue to make every dollar work extra hard for Montana … by continuing with research-based decision making and being on the leading edge with new technologies and ideas, bringing the best return on investment to our state and local economies.

EBS: What do you see as key to strengthening tourism in Montana?

S.B.: Montana’s tourism industry is strong and growing. The Department of Commerce is making data-driven decisions and innovating in exciting ways to make sure we’re reaching high-potential travelers more efficiently, which is resulting in a renewed excitement for visitors to book their Montana trip. We also rely on the folks like those gathered at this conference who serve as ambassadors of this special place we call home. Their work makes an incredible difference in sharing first-hand the authentic adventures Montana has to offer.

EBS: What does the state of Montana consider its most important and effective way to communicate with visitors and potential visitors?

S.B.: [The Department of] Commerce’s Office of Tourism and Business Development uses groundbreaking research tools and technology to deliver stunning advertisements to the right audiences at the right time. The state’s job is to inspire travelers to visit Montana, and local tourism marketing partners then provide on-the-ground services to travelers while they’re here.

EBS: What kind of shifts have you seen geographically in terms of tourism?

S.B.: Though we are largely targeting visitors behaviorally, not geographically, we are seeing strong arrivals in response to our ads [in] California, Washington, Colorado, neighboring states and Canada. We are seeing opportunities in Portland and Phoenix looking forward. And it is likely no surprise that we see upticks in markets with direct air service, such as Dallas. 

We continue to have a presence in seven overseas markets and have piloted additional direct-to-consumer advertising in the U.K., Germany and Australia given their affinity for U.S. travel, and a specific desire for what Montana has to offer.

EBS: Are there additional resources you would deem important to increasing visitor satisfaction during their stay in Montana?

S.B.: Glacier and Yellowstone national parks are still the driving force for first-time visitation to Montana. However, we are starting to see a shift toward the parks being just one part of the overall trip. … The parks are experiencing high volumes of traffic and are putting systems in place to mitigate those impacts while maintaining a magical experience for visitors. We encourage visitors heading to the parks to check out the information [Yellowstone and Glacier] provide for parking, any closures, or other useful information to help plan their experience in advance.

EBS: How are you going to help small businesses that rely heavily on tourism remain vibrant and healthy?

S.B.: The Montana Department of Commerce supports small businesses in a variety of ways including financial and technical assistance to help companies grow or retain jobs. Commerce connects wholesale buyers with Made in Montana members to get more locally made or grown products on the shelves of stores across the state. Plus, support is available for communities to further develop tourist destinations or repair critical community infrastructure.