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As summer ends, Billings looks at the health of its tourist season
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As summer ends, Billings looks at the health of its tourist season

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Summer in Billings has been mild in more ways than one. 

Tourism in Billings and the region this summer has been flat, just under where it was a year ago, a dip business leaders, shop owners and hoteliers anticipated. 

"We had Garth last summer," Shelli Mann, general manager of Boothill Inn & Suites, said with a laugh. Country superstar Garth Brooks sold out five shows in three days last year at MetraPark's Rimrock Auto Arena.

Boothill Inn sits across the street from MetraPark in the Heights and survives in large part on the visitors the arena brings to town. As such, every year Mann gets a good feel for what direction the tourism winds are blowing. 

Occupancy rates at the Boothill from May through August were pretty flat compared to last summer, she said, mirroring rates for the city and region as a whole. 

Still, the long days, warm nights and all the events at MetraPark and downtown venues inevitably bring in crowds, even if they're not Garth-sized crowds, she said.  

"Every summer in Montana is good," Mann said.

Labor Day weekend traditionally signals the end of the summer tourist season, and as trade groups and businesses begin to crunch numbers they've seen some trends begin to form. 

Visit Montana, which operates through the Billings Chamber of Commerce, measures tourism by tracking hotel occupancy through the state's Lodging Facility Use Tax. August numbers won't be available for another week, but measuring what's happened in May, June and July gives a sense for how the summer has gone. 

"From Billings’ point of view, where the city is mostly flat, Billings is a strong destination and we have some great offerings, but so do our competitive cities," said Alex Tyson, executive director of Visit Billings. "We are fortunate to have a growing music scene, a great brewery/distillery district, events, museums, galleries, shopping, ag events, outdoor activities, and restaurants."

Occupancy rates for Billings-area hotels usually hover around 70 percent to 75 percent during the summer. From May to July this year, occupancy sat between 68 percent and 69 percent. 

The Northern Hotel in downtown Billings saw similar trends. Given the spike in 2017 occupancy rates, the numbers for this summer held their own, said George Maragos, general manager of the Northern. 

"It was a very good summer for us in chasing last year's numbers," he said. 

He noted that June this year was up over June 2016 and that preliminary numbers for August show a record-setting month for the hotel.  

The Northern, which serves a high-end clientele, draws much of its summer business from tourists specifically visiting from the East Coast and overseas to see the West. They visit places like Yellowstone National Park, Pompeys Pillar and the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. 

In August a tour operator brought one of these groups to the Northern and many of them showed up a day or two early to be able to experience the local atmosphere before heading out on their tour. 

"Downtown benefited as a whole from these customers," Maragos said. "It was great to see."

They shopped the stores and galleries, ate at the local restaurants and visited the art and western history museums downtown, he said. 

The best thing for bringing and increasing tourism to Billings is to work closely with all the community partners and ensure everyone's working toward the same goal, Maragos said. County, city and business leaders have done a good job bringing to town a wide range of concerts, programs, conventions and fairs, he said.   

"We're seeing a little more ingenuity," he said. 

It's something of which Tyson is keenly aware. 

"People don’t have to come to Billings anymore; there are plenty of options," she said. "Area consumers have many choices, so it’s important for the community to continue to have progressive conversations so Billings can be the best city, community, and tourist destination possible. It’s important to grow visitation. It’s a priority for us."

Like the Northern Hotel, Boothill Inn sees a large share of tourists, many coming from out of state and from Eastern Montana. Mann has been impressed by the wide range of acts that MetraPark has been able to draw in — everything from monster trucks to Kelly Clarkson to Def Leppard. 

"They've done a fantastic job bringing a great mix into town," she said. 

Her out-of-state visitors use Billings as a home base for traveling to more regional destinations. Typically that's Yellowstone, she said. But this year has been different. 

"We found that people staying were headed more to Glacier (National Park)," she said. "And the summer season stretches into September more." 

Mann sees many of her summer lodgers taking the season and pushing it out into early fall. They tend to be guests who have the flexibility to travel after the summer rush and enjoy dealing with fewer crowds and less busy attractions. 

But more than that, Boothill Inn invests heavily in plugging into smaller, Eastern Montana communities. Mann places local ads, gets involved with local charities and events and works to embrace the smaller cities. 

"There's a lot of things bringing those regional folks to town," she said. 

And when they get here they need a place to stay, she said. Billings is a medical hub and a regional shopping center and so attracts a lot of local tourists who need a place to stay while visit a specialist or shop at Scheels and Costco. 

Mann has worked hard to appeal to those groups and she believes it's paid off. 

"We have a very good reputation regionally," she said. 

Tyson at Visit Billings believes the city's success in bringing more tourism to Billings is being able to balance those two groups — the out-of-state visitor looking for the big western experience and the in-state visitor coming for shopping and other services. 

"(We have) all of the industries that keep the economy strong like healthcare, energy, financial sector," she said. "The business traveler is very important to the local economy as well."

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