With strong summer tourism, northwest Montana pushes for off-season visitors

2013-12-22T00:15:00Z With strong summer tourism, northwest Montana pushes for off-season visitorsBy VINCE DEVLIN Missoulian The Billings Gazette
December 22, 2013 12:15 am  • 

KALISPELL — Tourism drives much of the economy in the northwest corner of Montana. The area has a national park to thank for that.

Of the 11 million nonresidents who visited Montana last year, 21 percent came specifically because of Glacier National Park, according to data from the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. (Yellowstone National Park was the main reason another 27 percent arrived.)

“That’ll never change,” said Diane Medler, director of the Kalispell Convention and Visitor Bureau. “We’re lucky to have a national park in our backyard.”

The bulk of the nearly 2.2 million people who visited Glacier through October 2013 — more than 1.6 million of them — arrived, not surprisingly, in June, July and August.

It’s no more surprising, then, that the convention and visitor bureau focuses its efforts on luring people to this corner of the state between September and May.

“Historically, our hotel occupancy rates are dictated by the opening and closing of Going-to-the-Sun Road,” Medler said. “Our focus is to push for activities and events outside of July and August.”

And push they do.

Whitefish Mountain Resort and Blacktail Mountain Ski Area will always draw skiers in the winter.

Kalispell has roped the Montana High School Rodeo Finals away from Bozeman, and will host the event at the Majestic Valley Arena on June 3-8, before the summer rush of tourists arrive.

“It’s the best indoor arena in the state,” Medler said. “It did take a couple of years, but at that time of year there can be rain, and the other places are outdoors. A number of people on the committee hadn’t been here before, but once they saw the facility, it was an easy sell after that point.”

Kalispell has the high school rodeo for 2015 as well, with an option for 2016. It’s expected to bring 4,000 people to town for its five-day run in 2014.

On May 10, more than 6,000 people are expected for an extreme obstacle race called the Spartan Sprint in Bigfork. The Reebok-sponsored event will be run over a 4-mile course where participants encounter all sorts of surprises and challenges on the way to the finish line.

The puck drops for the inaugural Montana Pond Hockey Classic on Feb. 21-23 at Foys Lake west of Kalispell.

Medler said the 4-on-4 outdoor hockey tournaments on natural ice are very popular in the Northeast.

“What we do with all these things is research them, find an individual or company that’s knowledgeable, has already put on events, and gauge their interest in coming to Montana,” she said.

In this case, a New England promoter who runs two large pond hockey tournaments there will be in charge. More than 100 teams, and more than 1,000 more spectators, are expected.

In case the weather doesn’t cooperate, Medler said another lake at a higher elevation that is almost guaranteed to be frozen in February will be on standby.

Organizers expect plenty for the Montana Pond Hockey Classic, just as they get a lot of teams from north of the border for the Montana Dragon Boat Festival, which will enter its third year on Flathead Lake in 2014.

Dragon boat racing had a $2 million economic impact on the area this year, Medler said, part of Flathead County’s $290 million-a-year tourism industry.

A significant portion of the latter figure is due to Canadian visitors, and Medler said unlike all the other people who come here, Glacier National Park is not necessarily the main attraction.

“That’s why Canadians are so beneficial,” she said. “Glacier’s not their primary reason for coming. They have their own national parks (Waterton, which connects to Glacier, being the most obvious) and they come in the shoulder and winter months, too. Recreational shopping is one of their top activities.”

They’ll find a new Cabela’s in Kalispell and, in 2014, a 24,000-foot expansion to Sportsman & Ski Haus.

Those are two of the highlights Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Joe Unterreiner is trumpeting as the Flathead Valley emerges from the recession.

“There are a lot of positive signs,” Unterreiner said. “Health care and tourism are bright spots, and we’re making good progress in the real estate and construction markets.”

Housing starts and hotel occupancy rates “are pointing upward,” he said, while unemployment is falling. Hotelier revenues increased 35 percent from 2010 to 2012, the first three years that the convention and visitor bureau has been operating, according to Unterreiner.

Plum Creek restarted its Evergreen sawmill, adding $1.4 million in payroll to the county. Fred’s Appliance is building a 26,000-square-foot facility that will add 20 employees, Unterreiner said, and the Flathead Lake Brewing Company will have 40 employees at its new Bigfork location.

Visitors also have another choice for lodging. Hilton Homewood Suites opened a 100-room property at Hutton Ranch Plaza.

Smaller communities in the northwest corner of the state are also seeing growth. In Polson, for instance, a new Wal-Mart Super Center opened in October, Murdoch’s Ranch and Home Supply will take over the old Wal-Mart location, and AutoZone arrived in town — a flurry of activity for a community of 4,500.

While final figures aren’t ready for 2013, Norma Nickerson, director at UM’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, is projecting a 2.3 percent increase in tourists for the year — and expects another 2 to 3 percent increase in 2014.

“Most people think it will be a better year next year than this year,” she said, “and 2013 probably would be bigger if not for the government shutdown. We’re lucky it didn’t happen in the middle of summer.”

Of those 11 million who visited the state, the institute estimates 35 percent — almost 4 million — were in Montana for the first time in their lives.

Another 23 percent were in groups that had a mix of first-time and repeat visitors.

“You’ll see a lot of cases where maybe a couple visits Glacier because one of them went through as a teenager and tells their spouse, ‘You’ve got to see it too,’ ” Nickerson said.

The park will always be the primary draw to northwestern Montana, and most of those tourists will arrive in the heat of summer.

Medler said it’s outdoor hockey tournaments in February, and indoor rodeos in June, that will help tourism contribute to the rest of Glacier Country’s economy.

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