Statewide tourism numbers strong, but Billings travel lags 2012

2013-10-01T00:00:00Z Statewide tourism numbers strong, but Billings travel lags 2012BILLINGS BUSINESS The Billings Gazette
October 01, 2013 12:00 am  • 

State tourism officials say Montana’s summer travel season has a chance to surpass last year’s

record numbers. But tourism in the Billings area is trending behind last year.

The main runway at Logan International Airport was shut down for six weekends in July and August for resurfacing, and that probably contributed to lower visitation in the state’s largest city.

According to Smith Travel Research, Inc., Montana hotel occupancy exceeded the national average in June and July for the second year in a row, peaking in July at 82 percent.

Occupancy of available rooms increased by more than 2 percent compared to those available in 2012, and the overall revenue per available room in the state increased by about 4 percent.

“This is great news for all small businesses and Montanans,” said Sandra Johnson-Thares, Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association president and owner of the O’Haire Motor Inn. “Montana still led the nation for June and July. That means that as the U.S. economy is just beginning to improve, folks are already choosing to spend their time and money in Montana.”

Alex Tyson, executive director of the Billings Chamber of Commerce’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the runway project might not be the only factor in the lower visitation for Billings. In addition, the Business Improvement District’s board of directors, which allocates money collected in a surcharge on hotel and motel rooms, also decided to steer promotional dollars away from the summer and into “value season” promotions.

“We didn’t do as well as the rest of the state, but we’re looking forward to the fall,” Tyson said.

Because of strong travel statewide, tourism officials are anticipating an increase in collections from the lodging tax, which makes more money available to fund Montana’s state parks, university system, historical society, heritage commission and the arts as well as the state’s general fund, said Johnson-Thares.

Preliminary survey results published in August by the Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana show an almost 9 percent year-over-year increase in the number of travelers visiting the state in the first two quarters of 2013.

According to the National Park Service, Glacier National Park saw an additional 45,000 visitors in June and July, an increase of almost 5 percent compared to last year. Additionally, Glacier is on pace to have its best overall year since 2010.

“We are very excited to see the increase in visitors to our park and the economic success that comes with it,” said Racene Friede, executive director for Glacier Country. “Many western Montana communities were hit hard by the recession, and tourism has been a big part of their recovery as some traditional industries continue to lag.”

In fact, many small communities that had been wholly dependent on industries like timber or mining have completely restructured their economies to better attract visitors with world-class events and activities that share the local, Montana experience with great success, Friede said.

According to Yellowstone spokesman Dan Hottle, vehicle traffic into Yellowstone National Park increased by 2.68 percent, with 291,500 recreational automobiles and RV’s, compared to 283,898 in 2012.

Although Yellowstone reported an 8 percent decrease in visitors for June and July, this has been widely attributed to a change this year in how the number of visitors entering the park is calculated.

According to Hottle, visitation numbers haven’t really changed all that much and the reduced figure is attributed to the park changing its person-per-vehicle multiplier from 2.91 persons-per-vehicle in previous years to 2.58 this year.

“We’re still on about the same track as the last five years. We’ve been pretty across the board with over 3 million visitors (annually),” Hottle said.

Tourism continues to be a leading industry for Montana, generating more than $3.2 billion in 2012 and supporting more than 40,000 jobs statewide. Though many factors affect each of the state’s major industries, consumer spending seems to be the predominant factor that drives Montana tourism, according to a recent briefing from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

“Our state is uniquely positioned to take full advantage as consumer confidence and spending continues upward,” said Stuart Doggett, executive director of the Montana Lodging and Hospitality Industry. “Tourism brings immense value and diversity to our state’s economy and as long as we continue to reinvest a portion of the funds generated by the lodging tax in it, we will see huge returns in the next few years.”

According to Doggett, tourism’s anticipated success will be due, in large part, to the state’s nationally acclaimed marketing strategy. While other states reduced or completely stopped marketing themselves as a travel destination during the recession, the Montana Office of Tourism successfully filled that void in a myriad of domestic markets that will have huge payoffs as the national economy continues to improve.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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