By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – On Nov. 19, Visit Big Sky held its first board meeting since being awarded more than $350,000 for its Promote the Destination project, an effort to market the Big Sky area in outside markets.
VBS used the $353,432 dollars apportioned by the Big Sky Resort Area District on Nov. 12 to hire Colorado-based advertising agency Karsh Hagan from Jan. 1 through June 30, 2021, in order to help market Big Sky as a year-round destination.
In a three-to-one vote, the resort tax board awarded VBS the money as part of its fall awards cycle. This year, VBS reduced its fall cycle request by $41,000 and was able to relinquish $160,000 back to BSRAD from their spring award. The organization wanted time to do the foundational research needed to inform bringing another agency on board, said VBS CEO Candace Carr Strauss.
According to VBS’s resort tax application, the first quarter of the year, when ski season opens, generates approximately three times as much tax revenue as the summer.
“The goal is to support Big Sky’s continued evolution from a destination ski resort to a sustainable, year-round community by flattening out the seasonality of our destination’s visitation, shortening the shoulder seasons, building up summer to rival winter, and mitigating risks from weather by planning,” the application states.
Carr Strauss said the idea of VBS working with an “agency of record” is not new. When Strauss joined VBS in 2017, the organization had just canceled its contract with FUSE Ideas out of Boston.
“It’s always been the intent to work with … an agency partner,” she said.
This intent aligned with VBS’s Imagine Big Sky Strategic Plan formulated back in 2017 and 2018, which included the decision to promote shoulder seasons as well as summer. Carr Strauss says VBS still plays “best supporting actor to Big Sky Resort for the winter.” But, she added, the majority of VBS’s paid media is earmarked for summer and shoulder seasons.
The goal is to bring a balance to tourism and tax collection between winter and the rest of the year and make businesses sustainable year-round, according to Carr Strauss. Currently, winter visitation numbers are significantly higher. Winter visitors also stay longer and are willing to pay a much higher price point on lodging and activities, Carr Strauss said.
“You can see that our winter tax collections for first quarter for 2019 … were like $1.7 million on that 4 percent of the bed tax, versus our summer that’s only at about $650,000 dollars,” she said.
Carr Strauss pointed to a situation in Colorado a few years ago as an example of why promoting the destination year-round is so important. She said the snowpack in Colorado during the winter of 2017-2018 was significantly lower than the state’s historical average and its visitation numbers that year dropped accordingly.
“I think we saw with COVID when we shut the ski resort five weeks early what could happen to us if we didn’t have a winter,” she said.
At its Nov. 19 meeting, the VBS board began the process of onboarding Karsh Hagan and to see an initial presentation.
Before hearing from the agency, the board heard public comment. Eric Ladd, CEO of the Outlaw Partners—and the publisher of this newspaper—voiced concerns about how VBS is using BSRAD funds.
“My belief is that the time has come for Visit Big Sky to shift from destination marketing to destination management,” said Ladd, suggesting that VBS should spend money in the Big Sky community as opposed to outside locales.
“This is not the most productive or effective use of your budget,” Ladd said, urging VBS to rethink hiring an outside advertisement agency. “The money you have recently been awarded could be used right here in Big Sky and make a huge difference. Keep the money local, support our local businesses and create more resort tax dollars.”
The rest of the VBS meeting included budget updates, information on additional VBS grant applications, an update on the Oct. 21 letter sent to Congress by a collective of western states asking to add a Gateway Community Dividend to the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, and the presentation by Karsh Hagan’s team.
Founded in 1977 and based in Denver, Colorado, Karsh Hagan has worked with high-profile ski resorts including Aspen-Snowmass, Winter Park, Steamboat and Loveland.
The Karsh Hagan team introduced strategies as well as a brief concept for its Big Sky marketing strategy, and Carr Strauss emphasized the importance of the Promote the Destination project. “Just because you have tourism at the moment, when you stop putting out there that you’re open for business, people stop coming and that economic loss is significant.”
Some European resorts are considering temporary shutdowns or delayed openings. Carr Strauss said that if Big Sky had to shut down, the loss of winter resort tax collections would hurt the community.
“I think if we went a winter with no visitors, we would not be in a very good place next summer,” she said.
Karsh Hagan and VBS will host a brand workshop on Dec. 9 to aggregate research from the 2018 Place DNA study, which looks at a destination from the inside out, focusing first on residents as well as summer research from 2019.