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HELENA - Diane Brandt, executive director of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, has a word to describe Montana's high plains and it's not a variation of "flat."

"It's getting discovered," she said.

That may not be entirely by accident. Since last year, the state Office of Tourism has been working to "brand" the region's most iconic natural attractions and promote them. What's especially unusual is the audience for the state's "High Plains" marketing campaign: western Montana, plus Bismarck, N.D., about a day's drive away.

A University of Montana survey shows the campaign may have been a hit. Many western Montana and North Dakota people targeted by the campaign say they have very positive impressions of "Montana's High Plains." A whopping 89 percent of respondents identified as interested in local travel said they planned to vacation in the state's high plains in the next two years.

"This was a successful campaign," said Katy Peterson, the consumer marketing manager in state's Office of Tourism.

The office spends most of its money, about

95 percent, marketing Montana to would-be vacationers out of state, she said. Most out-of-staters are coming to Montana for two reasons: Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park.

Much of the office's out-of-state campaigns reflect that. Ads in Chicago feature the geothermic wizardry of Yellowstone; ads in Seattle feature enormous photos of one of Glacier's mountain goats.

Those images, the parks, Peterson said, are already icons and, curiously, out-of-staters seem to know more about them than people living here.

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But Gov. Brian Schweitzer encouraged the office to market all of Montana. To that end, Peterson said, she, along with other state marketing officials and tourism leaders on the high plains began planning a marketing effort last year that would promote the plains.

They identified the region as a broad, bluffy triangle running from the Hi-Line to the Bighorn Canyon along the Wyoming border. Within that, Peterson said, they highlighted three attractions to brand as something spectacular, unique and breathtaking, like the national parks: the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument, the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and Battlefield.

And, they really are spectacular, Peterson said.

"It's completely unspoiled," she said. It's a part of the world that looks like it did 200 years ago, which is saying something. National Geographic has called part of the region "the American Serengeti."

They decided to market the area to Montana and western North Dakota after looking at where the region's visitors already come from. Most "were from Montana towns," Peterson said.

There were other reasons. Tourism infrastructure is somewhat thin in parts of the high plains and Montanans may be more up for an adventure than out-of-state vacationers, Peterson said.

"We went into it pretty conservatively," she said.

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Results show the campaign had the biggest impact in western Montana.

Last year's campaign ran through the summer beginning in late May and early June. This year, the high plains campaign has been folded into another campaign intended to market Montana to Montanans. Called "Get Lost in Montana," the new campaign targets the whole state, not just western Montana. But the branding of the high plains continues and about half of the ads and imagery feature the region's star attractions.

"We knew this was going to have life beyond 2009," Peterson said.

But, she cautioned, success at this early stage is not necessarily counted in number of new visitors. Ultimately, she said, the goal is more visitors. But right now, some parts of the high plains do not have the hotels or restaurants to handle a large influx of new vacationers. And even some of the unspoiled places don't have basic attractions like hiking trails to draw people into them and let them see how spectacular they are.

The C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, for example, doesn't really have hiking trails, said Betty Stone, owner of the Cottonwood Inn in Glasgow. Various groups are working to get trails built, she said, but so far, there are only a few nature trails and a brochure of self-guided auto tours.

Stone and many other owners of tourism-related businesses in the region say they welcomed the ad campaign, even as measuring its effects so early in the game is difficult.

"Our numbers are pretty flat compared to last year," Stone said. But in this economy, "maybe flat is good."

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Brandt said she was "really happy with" the High Plains initiative, in part, she said, "because it's going after a certain person who wants a unique experience. We have a unique, pure quality. That's kind of our niche."

But others, like Linda Wolfe, who co-owns the Fort Peck Hotel in the tiny town of Fort Peck with her husband, say the region has a long ways to go. Wolfe and her husband live in Missoula during the off season.

"I can't tell you how many people I've talked to just in Missoula who have no idea we exist out here," she said. "This is not a place people seem to be picking up on."

Wolfe learned of the place after working with an outfitting company in western Montana that put its hunters up at the hotel.

"We started coming out here 15 years ago," she said. Her husband had been hunting the area for 30 years. When the hotel came up for sale four years ago, they bought it.

"I think it's gorgeous," she said of the regions vast vistas and wild river habitat. "It's totally different."

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Jennifer McKee can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at jennifer.mckee@lee.net.

 

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