The Montana economy is largely dependent on tourism, and that industry has been temporarily ruined by the coronavirus shutdowns. But local officials are hoping to keep people’s minds on the Treasure State when they think about trips many months from now. There also seems to be signs that there have been fewer long-term cancellations for Montana tourism businesses compared to other places in the country.
“As you can imagine, this pandemic has been absolutely devastating to the tourism industry across the world,” explained Barb Neilan, the executive director of Destination Missoula, the local tourism-promoter. “As a destination marketing organization, it has required us to step back, because our mission has always been to bring people in for economic growth. So we’ve had to re-evaluate.”
Neilan was on Talk Back, a radio show hosted by Newstalk KGVO in Missoula, on April 2 to discuss the state of the tourism industry. She was joined by Jim McGowan, the CEO of Windfall, an ad agency that works with Destination Missoula. Their message was that things are dire right now, but there's hope for the long-term future.
Nearly 94% of Montana’s travel-related businesses said they’ve been impacted by the virus, according to a survey conducted March 11-27 by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana. The survey found that roughly 83% of businesses saw cancellations in the last two weeks of March and first part of April. The hardest hit industries were accommodations and outfitters and guides.
“We changed our focus,” Neilan continued. “We’re telling people not to come to Missoula right now. Everyone needs to stay home and stay safe and follow the directions of the state and nation. But at the same time, we know some people have got time on our hands so we’ve pulled back all marketing except for digital and social, and we’re asking them to dream and plan and share memories.”
She wants people to “not so much cancel plans” but to postpone them for the time being.
“We’re still going to be there when this is all over, but we want them to be healthy and safe for now,” she said.
In 2018, nearly 12.4 million nonresident visitors came to Montana and spent about $3.58 billion in the state. In Missoula County, the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research estimated that nonresident spending supported about $221 million in economic activity, including 3,580 jobs and $70 million in worker compensation that year.
"As an organization, our purpose is to attract visitors to Western Montana, but in the current state our messaging has obviously changed," said Racene Friede, President and CEO of Glacier Country Tourism. "Our purpose now is to remind travelers that now is not the right time to come to Montana, give them a little future travel inspiration, and welcome them back when the time is right."
She noted that about one-third of all tourists in Montana come to western Montana.
Neilan and McGowan know how important it will be to get the tourism industry back up and running if and when the U.S. beats back the coronavirus. So for now, they’re focused on getting people to think about Montana for their trips when the COVID-19 pandemic is in the rearview mirror.
“We need to focus on being inspiring and having uplifting messaging, providing people with beautiful imagery to keep them hopeful and keep them dreaming,” Neilan said. “There is going to be an end to this. I know it doesn’t seem like it right now.”
There is a silver lining, she noted.
“The beautiful thing about tourism is it’s one of those industries that can pivot quickly,” she said. “When we do see people traveling again, this industry is going to come back faster than other industries, and that’s going to help with the economic stability here.”
McGowan told the radio show that from a marketing perspective, it’s about playing the “long game.”
“Our marketing and strategy is including trips that happen sometimes a year from now,” he said. “We have to focus on the long game and our engagement with potential tourists now who are ordering travel guides.”
He said engaging potential travelers results in a higher likelihood that they’ll end up traveling here.
“We have so many great amenities here like the outdoor amphitheater and the mountains,” he said. “We need to make sure that when the smoke clears, we deliver.”
Norma Nickerson, the director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, said the survey results show that most businesses are not considering closing their doors permanently.
“It’s a wait-and-see game for many,” Nickerson said in a press release about the survey.
Even sectors that aren’t usually considered related to tourism and travel, like the company retreat industry, are getting hit.
Jeremy Sage, the associate director of the Institute, noted that Montana cancellations aren’t as bad as other places in the U.S. For example, about 37% of booked trips to Montana that were scheduled in the spring and summer have been canceled, and another 36% are actively being considered to be canceled.
“As high as these values are, they do paint a better picture than the rest of the U.S.,” Sage said. “To all other domestic locations, 54% of booked trips are getting canceled by this group, and another 32% are considering cancellation.”
This story appears in Vol. 1 Issue 2 of Missoula Business, a publication that reports on emerging trends and goes beyond the numbers to look at the insights and drive of the people leading Missoula forward. Find the second issue inserted in the Sunday print Missoulian and soon in the e-edition, and read the stories on Missoulian.com.