BILLINGS – A recent study by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana found that cycle tourists spend about $79 per day, compared to $58.24 in daily expenditures for nonresident travelers who arrived by car or other means.
In 2012, 10.8 million visitors spent $3.25 billion in Montana. While cyclists account for only a fraction of all Montana travelers, that group has the potential to make a larger contribution to the state’s tourism industry, cycling advocates say.
What’s more, small communities that are frequently bypassed by tourists heading to places like Yellowstone National Park can prosper from pedal-pushing visitors, the study found.
Increasingly, tourism marketing has focused on appealing to specific population segments rather than trying to attract everybody. Given that cyclists tend to spend more per day and also remain longer, there’s potential for growing Montana’s tourism industry by appealing to cyclists, said Norma Nickerson, director of the institute.
“Right now there’s not bazillions of them doing this kind of cycling,” in Montana, Nickerson said. “But just think how it would be if a community wrapped their arms around what these cyclists need. It would generate a lot of dollars.”
There’s a simple reason that cyclists spend more. Because they travel slower and carry less gear, they tend to spend more for food, beverages and lodging, Nickerson said during the Bike Walk Summit, a gathering of alternative transportation advocates who met in Billings in late March.
“And they’re not just biking,” Nickerson said. “They’re visiting historical sites, watching wildlife, day hiking and visiting local breweries.”
The town of Twin Bridges is one example of a Montana community that has reaped financial benefits by embracing cycle tourists. A few years ago, Twin Bridges resident Bill White developed a cycle camp, which offered hot showers and camping accommodations
Jim Sayer, executive director of Missoula-based Adventure Cycling, said an initial $9,000 investment in the bike camp was repaid during the first year when cyclists made around $10,000 in donations. Since then, local businesses in Twin Bridges have continued to appeal to cyclists by stocking bicycle parts and providing other products that cyclists need, he said.
Nickerson said the ITRR completed the study with help from Adventure Cycling, a bicycle travel organization that researches cycling routes, publishes maps and leads cycling trips.
Surveys were sent to 3,200 cyclists who had purchased maps or requested information from Adventure Cycling during the past three years. The study was based on responses from 718 cyclists. Sayer said about 1,200 cyclists per year visit the organization’s headquarters in downtown Missoula.
Survey respondents were frequently impressed by the friendliness of Montanans and local breweries, and they enjoyed the scenery and wildlife.
On the other hand, cyclists were least satisfied with the quality of mobile phone coverage, the prevalence of rumble strips which can interfere with cycling, poor road conditions, and the lack of availability of cycling stores, Nickerson said.
“Here’s my plan,” Nickerson said, joking. “All the small communities around the state have to get a local brewery, a warm shower in a little place, and we’ll flourish.”
Another speaker said that cycling can play an important economic role in urban areas.
Local businesses prosper whenever a community makes an effort to encourage people to commute, shop and run errands by bicycle.
Because cyclists move at human speed and don’t have to circle the block searching for a parking place, they’re more likely to discover and buy from local businesses, said April Economides, founder of Green Octopus Consulting of Long Beach, Calif.
Communities that have adopted policies to encourage cycling and walking have become more vibrant and safer, Economides said.
Her message is simple: “Bikes mean business.”
Economides, who holds a Master of Business Administration in sustainable management, said she’s not just an advocate of active transportation, but rather that she is someone who understands that communities benefit economically when they advocate walking and cycling.
“I feel that with most transportation initiatives, whether it’s active transportation or mass transit, I’ve noticed that folks who are proponents of those things don’t know how to speak very well to business,” she said. “I wanted to learn how to make the economic case for these things.”
It may seem obvious, but people who do their errands on foot or by bicycle tend to stay closer to home.
“There’s a very strong bike-local, shop-local connection,” she said. “Rather than getting into an SUV and driving to Costco five miles away, they’ll hop on their bike and stop at their local grocery store.” And because they visit local stores more frequently, they often end up spending more money over time, Economides said.
Studies conducted throughout the United States and Canada have found that cyclists help local businesses prosper, she said.
In Fort Worth, Texas, a plan to install a bike lane and bike racks along restaurant-lined Magnolia Street was initially met with skepticism from business owners. “But then, when their sales went up an average of 200 percent, they really liked it,” she said.
In New York City, businesses located along a new cycle track – a separated bike lane – saw their sales increase by 49 percent. Likewise, storefront vacancies declined by a similar amount in areas served by a cycle track, she said.