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Downtown Missoula's new parking garage.

More than 3,400 people voted last week to help Missoula advance in an online competition to win the right to host the 2013 Social Media Tourism Symposium.

That was after 1,606 Missoula fans voted in the competition’s first round, which advanced the Garden City in the tournament-style bracket.

On Tuesday, Missoula will compete against Branson, Mo., in the 12-hour “#SoMeT13US” Final Four round on Facebook. Destination Missoula, spearheading the effort here, is urging all Montanans to log in and vote.

But what would a win mean for the city?

For one, the winning city will welcome hundreds of social media experts from across the country coming to learn more about how social media affects promotion within the travel industry, said David Serino, a symposium founder who manages the event with colleagues at Think! Social Media USA.

It’s not only an economic shot in the arm, it’s a chance for those experts to showcase their experiences to a giant, worldwide audience. The posts, tweets and photos attendees generate not only create a buzz, they provide a road map for tourism groups to fine-tune their marketing strategies, Serino said.

For example, more than 700 photos were taken by symposium attendees in El Paso, Texas, last year.

“I would probably say two-thirds of them were taken from outside the event. It obviously gives exposure,” Serino said. “The other thing is you really get to see a profile of what people do when they’re in the destination.”

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Destination Missoula was one of 13 tourism entities that submitted host proposals to #SoMeT13US, the hashtag phrase used by the symposium on Twitter. Only four cities are left after two rounds of voting.

Missoula takes on Branson on Tuesday when voting opens on Facebook at 8 a.m.

Then on Thursday, No. 6 seed Cleveland takes on No. 1 seed Huntsville, Ala.

The championship vote will take place on Tuesday, April 2.

Destination Missoula is estimating that the symposium could bring in $250,000 locally.

In El Paso, symposium attendees accounted for 450 night stays at local hotels. Serino expects more people this year.

For Missoula, hosting the symposium could help prove people will travel here for more than just the mountains and scenery.

“Maybe people think that maybe (tourists) come here for the outdoors, but would they come for a convention? This shows the community there’s great potential,” Serino said.

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Serino created the symposium to help the tourism industry keep up with the quickly evolving world of social media.

“We just thought there was a need for education in the social media arena, particularly for tourism. We want to have a good technical conference where people could come and learn and do hands-on things,” Serino said.

Social media allows organizations like Destination Missoula to increase its “reach and application” by inviting an entire network of people to participate in sharing what a promotion campaign’s about – and what the destination has to offer, Serino said.

“It’s one of those things that can be done on a grassroots level,” he said. “What I think is exciting for the tourism industry is how you can build community through stakeholders, all who support a community.”

From the beginning, public input has been used to define what the symposium becomes each year.

The majority of attendees are “tactical executors” from the travel, tourism and hospitality industry.

“These are the people who go out and really work hands-on with social media,” Serino said. “Our content is focused on good strategies and technical content people can come in and learn, and implement immediately. They can even start to implement at the event.”

Last year, one session focused on Twitter and Facebook advertising planning. The winning city’s strategy becomes a case study detailed at each symposium, Serino said.

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Missoulian Jennifer Stephens, a social engagement strategist for Virginia-based marketing agency FullQuota, sees the symposium as an opportunity to raise the profile of technology in Montana.

“Whatever tools they apply to tourism will have applications to other industries and professions. I’m just excited for the opportunity for Montanans to get a professional opportunity like that. The whole contest helps put people on the map as a technology hub,” Stephens said.

Jobs in the technology sector pay well, aren’t resource dependent and allow people in Montana to work with clients throughout the world, Stephens said.

Stephens and her husband, Nathan Stephens, founded the Montana Web Designers and Developers Association, as well as helped bring Missoula BarCamp and Startup Weekend Missoula here. Both were well attended and drew people from across the state, showing interest is high for this kind of gathering, Stephens said.

Serino isn’t surprised Missoula, one of the smallest cities in the pool, has advanced so far in the contest. Missoula’s climb shows “great interest and participation and support” for social media and tourism, he said.

Still, Barb Neilan, Destination Missoula’s executive director, is urging the entire state to vote Tuesday.

“The challenge in these next rounds is to turn up the numbers,” Neilan said in a news release. “Branson turned out an impressive 2,578 votes in their last round for a win against Milwaukee, so they are going to be stiff competition. For this round, and should we advance to the Final Two, we need all Montanans to turn out the vote.”

Stephens agrees.

“Billing it as an event that supports the whole state is something that seems to me as being important to getting a larger number of people to engage with voting,” she said. “It would be great training for people who live here and a great resource for technology professionals across the state.”

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Reporter Jenna Cederberg can be reached at 523-5241 or at jenna.cederberg@missoulian.com.

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