When you sell shirts, hats and other apparel bearing an outline of Montana, you can expect out-of-staters will be looking for a souvenir.
At Aspinwall Mountain Wear in downtown Billings, tourism is big business and key to building their unique brand. People may stop in for state-themed clothes, but they’ll take notice of the shops’ brand: a snow-capped mountain, cut to look like a capital A, co-owner Lucy Aspinwall said.
“People will come in and buy a shirt, but they’re always curious about the brand,” Aspinwall said.
Aspinwall and her husband, Derek Aspinwall, moved the shop about three blocks in March to 103 N. Broadway, a larger space with a country feel. Metal barn siding adorns the front checkout stand, and clothing racks are lifted on wood pallets.
The aim is to capture Montana’s authenticity, which, tourism experts say, is key to capturing elusive visitor dollars.
“We truly can represent Montana well, because we’re from here,” said Lucy Aspinwall, a Billings native. Her husband is originally from Great Falls.
With Memorial Day approaching, tourism-related businesses in the area are preparing for a boost in customers for the summer. Many are hiring more workers, boosting inventory or planning special events for expected crowds.
While tourism is generally a growing industry in Yellowstone County, 2016 was a down year for many businesses, and they’re looking to rebound.
Last year, Billings lodging facilities collected $3.28 million in bed taxes, down 3 percent from 2015, according to the Montana Office of Business and Tourism.
Roughly one-third of those taxes are collected during the third quarter from July through September. In that period, tax collections were down 4 percent to $1.1 million over the year.
The 4 percent lodging is applied to hotel and motel room rentals. The revenue supports state tourism promotion and Visit Billings, the area’s tourism bureau.
Shelli Mann, general manager Boothill Inn & Suites, in Billings Heights, said she’s about 5 percent ahead of last year’s pace, and she is expecting a strong summer.
The Boothill never filled as quickly as when MetraPark announced Garth Brooks would be playing in early June, Mann said. The country music superstar has announced five shows in Billings, attracting thousands of fans who will need places to stay.
“That is huge,” Mann said.
In these last few weeks of the off-season, Mann said her staff is deep cleaning and doing other maintenance that’s impossible to finish when guests are churning in and out.
Boothill has also added a 24-hour shuttle to accommodate earlier flights at Billings Logan International Airport, she said.
Mann is the chairwoman of the area’s tourism and business improvement district, which is comprised of hoteliers and distributes bed-tax dollars. The district, known as TBID, was recently renewed by the Billings City Council for 10 more years, which is good for tourism around Billings, Mann said.
Since the TBID launched, Billings has added about 1,200 rooms, which has pinched some hotel owners in the last few years but positioned Billings for big events.
Mann pointed to NAIA national women’s basketball tournament, held in Billings for the first time this spring. The event brought hundreds of players, coaches and fans to the area.
“As a hotelier, I’m encouraged,” Mann said.
Outside of larger events, the Billings area has other attractions, such as the historic downtown, the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument and outdoor recreation.
The growing downtown brewery district also attracts thirsty travelers seeking to expand their samples of Montana beer, proprietors say. The city has seven breweries within about four blocks, allowing for easy walkability.
At Thirsty Street Brewing Co., the city’s newest brewery, the break in the cold weather has awakened the crowds, owner Shea Dawson said.
“After the winter we’ve just had, we’ve already seen a spike in business since the sun started shining,” he said.
Thirsty Street is expanding its menu at 3008 First Ave. N. for the summer, adding pretzels and other bar food to its selection of Montana-made sausages.
Dawson said he can’t necessarily tell if customers are from Billings or tourists, but business does increase when events are going on downtown, such as the Live After 5 gatherings hosted in the streets.
“That’s a really neat feature about downtown,” he said.