Special Reports: Montana tourism marketing stays flexible after big 2017 fire season

Posted at 3:21 PM, May 01, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 15:11:35-04

MISSOULA – Given the unpredictability of Montana’s wildfire seasons, the state’s tourism industry can never be quite sure what to expect. And the question is whether that challenge will increase with experts predicting hotter summers, and bigger fires, in the years to come.

Dennis Bragg went On Special Assignment and learned that the state’s tourism marketing is rolling with the punches, and continuing to tweak both the message and help for businesses.

It’s the summer Seeley Lake would like to forget. With the biggest fire of the year burning 160,000 acres next door, and other fires pumping smoke, it was miserable in the Seeley-Swan — and not just for tourism.

“And it affected businesses that we didn’t expect to effect either. We had a quilter in Seeley Lake that’s like, ‘yeah, I had to get rid of a lot of my stock because it just smelled of smoke.’ All these impacts that just compound one on top of another,” said Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research economist Jeremy Sage.

“It affected not only the tourists but Montanans spending money in their communities and neighboring communities as well which is a big piece of Montana’s summer spending,” Sage added.

Researchers estimate more than 800,000 visitors didn’t come to Montana last year, with the state losing as much as a $250 million. Yet, there was a silver lining in all those clouds of smoke.

“And though it seems like the perception was the whole state was on fire, we actually did see a growth in visitor spending by 11%. And we saw record-breaking years of visitation at Glacier National Park,” said Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development Chief of Marketing Jenny Pelej..

“So, though I know there was acute local impacts, on a statewide level we did really well. And I’m pleased to see that our tourism economy is so strong that we were able to actually sustain growth during a challenging season,” Pelej continued.

The question is, what happens in 2018? Is the state’s image taking a hit over the long-run? Well, maybe not.

“We did see within our surveys that visitors are quite resilient, and like ‘yeah, it was bad this year but I expect to be back next year. It’s not really going to affect my decision making yet’,” Sage said.

“The concern is if this becomes a year after year after year thing, how do we then adjust our marketing. How do we adjust our communication protocols to make sure that we don’t have this appear as being a smoke-filled state,” Sage added.

That’s where the age of “Big Data” makes a difference — and the Commerce Department is all about using the research and staying nimble.

“We’ve switched more to digital, behavioral demographics and targeting, which gives us the luxury that when something pops up like this we can turn off certain ads, turn on different ones. Target different people in different areas and be able to optimize our marketing to continue to get visitors to come here to recreate,” Pelej explained.

Additionally, the Commerce Department helped suffering communities last year, pumping in dollars for emergency marketing and business operations… which is now a permanent program.

“For businesses that were at risk of going out of business, or had gone out of business and were trying to get back into operation, we were able to provide a small grant of up to $5,000 to help with things such as inventory, or getting payroll covered, getting Montanans back to work,” said Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development Administrator Sean Becker.

“As soon as we see an event take off, even if people are saying ‘oh, we’re fine, we’re fine’ we’re going to let you know about the services, the technical assistance and potentially the finance programs that are available to adversely communities and businesses,” he continued.

“There’s a framework in place, this emergency support framework and the goal is that it is seamless, in the event that there is a natural disaster, man-made disaster we’re there, and we’re able to assist right away,” concluded Becker.

While the 2017 numbers are worrisome, Pelej says Montana has a long history of adapting.

“Well, whether it’s a fire season or changes in gas prices or we have a low snow year we are always dealing with variables that are out of our control. So no matter what the season is, or what the variable that’s being thrown at us, we’re constantly monitoring that and seeing what the impact is on our audience and adjusting our strategies and our targeting accordingly,” Pelej told MTN News.

Despite the fires, Montana continues to lead the way with its tourism marketing. In fact, state officials are being consulted by other states like Washington right now.

Information about assistance programs available from the State of Montana can be found here as well as on the Montana Department of Commerce website.

Reporting by Dennis Bragg for MTN News