By Ruffin Prevost
As Memorial Day approaches, and with it the start of the summer travel season, members of Montana’s tourism industry around Yellowstone National Park are pushing to make sure legislators are aware of their economic clout.
In towns across Montana last week, including in the Yellowstone gateway communities of Gardiner and Livingston, tourism industry professionals hosted open houses and special events with legislators and candidates as part of a National Tourism Week event.
At the Sweetwater Fy Shop in Livingston, state Sen. Ron Arthun (R-Wilsall) helped pull flies and other items from inventory for mail order customers, said owner Dan Gigone. Arthun was one of about a dozen legislators participating in Tourism Works Day in Montana.
Gigone said the event was “a worthwhile exercise for policymakers,” allowing them to see how the tourism industry provides jobs, and letting them hear from business owners about issues that affect them.
“We talked a bit about the importance of tourism and the dollars it brings in throughout the state, particularly in a town like Livingston that relies heavily on outsiders coming in and spending money in town,” Gigone said. “We couldn’t survive without it.”
Voices of Montana Tourism, an industry group that organized Tourism Works Day, is hoping to demonstrate to lawmakers how important hotels in Montana are in promoting the state as a tourist destination.
“The last legislative session was a pretty rough one for tourism and tourism promotion funding,” said Mary Paoli, spokeswoman for Voices of Montana Tourism.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed two bills in 2011 that would have changed how lodging tax revenues from hotels in Montana are used to promote tourism, Paoli said.
She said those bills and others like them that seek to reduce or eliminate lodging tax revenues spent on tourism promotion are a threat to the state’s $2.8 billion industry.
“It’s an ongoing issue every time the Legislature meets,” she said.
Visitors staying at hotels in Montana pay a 7 percent lodging tax, with 57 percent of that revenue going to promote tourism in the state and 43 percent sent to the state’s general fund. Lodging taxes from hotels in Montana could raise up to $15 million for the general fund this year, according to industry estimates. Non-resident travel supports 39,000 jobs in Montana, accounting for nearly 8 percent of the state’s total labor force.
But many policymakers are unaware of the full extent of the industry’s contribution to the state, Paoli said. So industry members are working to make sure public officials and candidates see first-hand how tourism helps pay the bills in Montana.
A boost in business
Sabina Strauss, co-owner of the Yellowstone Basin Inn near Gardiner, said she can tell when the Montana Office of Tourism is running a major marketing campaign, because it boosts business at her 12-room hotel.
“We are a family owned small business with a small marketing budget, so most of our money goes to operations and staff,” Strauss said. “I think it’s important that the (lodging tax) money stays there to advertise tourism.”
Strauss hosted an open house last week in Gardiner to allow locals and staff members to meet with office holders and candidates.
The event gave Strauss and others a chance to nail candidates down on their positions on travel and tourism issues, she said.
For one West Yellowstone business owner, tourism and public policy have become defining daily issues, and not just during National Tourism Week.
“West Yellowstone is completely dependent on tourism,” said Christopher Burke in an email. He is co-owner of Morning Glory Coffee & Tea, a retailer, wholesaler and Internet mail order company.
“One hundred percent of our income derives in some way from tourism,” said Burke, who is running as an Independent candidate for Montana’s House District 70. “We are primarily a local regional shop, which means our customers’ income is dependent on sustainability of the local economy, which is dependent on tourism.”
Burke said that West Yellowstone lacks a robust economic development program, and that “the creation of a sustainable economy, which includes tourism, is one of the major motivators to my campaign.”
Power of the Internet
Business owners like Gigone, Strauss and Burke rely on the state to help publicize Montana, and especially Yellowstone Park, as a vacation destination. But they have also discovered how the Internet can help small businesses thrive, even in remote, rural areas.
In addition to his brick-and-mortar shop, Gigone operates an online fishing supply business where anglers can read gear reviews and order everything from flies to waders to fish-related artwork.
Strauss said she saw her summer bookings for 2012 jump significantly after setting up an online reservation and booking system on her web site late last year, a move that many hotels in Montana are finding is essential to staying competitive.
For Burke, who has nearly 7,000 Twitter followers, social media services “have allowed us to brand ourselves and promote our community as well as Yellowstone and Montana in a new way.”
Burke said he would like to see the state of Montana do more, along with local businesses and destination communities, to leverage social media marketing.
“It is imperative that we remain ahead of the curve on new ideas and forms of communication, especially in a state as geographically large as Montana,” he said.
Despite their work in cyberspace, all three small business owners spend as much time as possible at their physical business locations, and they point out that there’s no substitute for delivering great customer service.
Which, of course, was the whole point of Tourism Works Day in Montana, Paoli said.
“This is the first time we’ve done it, and we’re trying to reach candidates, office holders and the public in a fun way,” she said.
Fun, but also work — though not nearly as tough as things can get during the height of the summer crush, Gigone said.
Arthun, the state senator who helped out at Sweetwater Fly Shop “seemed to know generally what flies were right, he knew what to look for,” Gigone said.
“But during the busy times, you have to really know your stuff,” Gigone said. “Whether he could make it in the height of tourism season? I’m skeptical.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].