A travel and tourism marketing expert once observed that Billings was “born lucky.” While Billings doesn’t boast world-class attractions like Yellowstone National Park, it’s in a unique position because it can offer some large-city amenities while being just a short jaunt to some spectacular places.
Alex Tyson, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau at the Billings Chamber of Commerce, understands that tourism contributes $250 million per year to the Billings economy. She is optimistic that with effective marketing, the travel sector will continue to grow in Billings, although competition for tourism dollars is growing.
Since taking over as director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Tyson has been working to keep Billings on the map for business and leisure travelers. She sat down with Billings Business to talk about efforts to keep heads in the beds at local lodging establishments.
Q: Tourism consultant Judy Randall has been mostly complimentary about the way Billings tries to promote travel and tourism, but the Convention and Visitors Bureau isn’t resting on its laurels. What’s next?
A: Judy is coming back in October, and a huge priority for us is developing a strategic plan. We need to know where we are, and how the market has changed, especially with the energy element playing a bigger role. We know that we have people coming here from the Bakken for the weekend, for doctor’s appointments, and for shopping.
Q. So, it’s more than a rumor that Bakken workers are checking out Billings?
A. It’s a fact. We haven’t done as much as we want to with marketing Billings for leisure travelers working in the Bakken. But we’re trying to research and see where we can best spend the money in order to get them to come here for MontanaFair, or a weekend shopping trip in December or Black Friday or just a weekend getaway in April. We want to make Billings a destination for them.
Q. How will the strategic plan take shape?
A. One thing Judy will do is a community forum. We know what we do has an impact on our community, and we have to make sure the community understands how much of an impact travel and tourism has, with 2 million visitors and $250 million in spending. Those are huge numbers, and one of our concerns is complacency. We’re working hard, and our tourism partners are working hard to get people here.
Q. You mentioned growing competition for tourism dollars. What’s going on?
A. Bozeman is looking at a convention center, and so is Missoula, and look at what Cheyenne has done. Williston is doing a lot of amazing things now, such as a large community center, and they have a lot of things in the works. If we’re not cautious, we could lose market share.
Q. Randall suggested that Billings should improve its entryways. Any progress on that front?
A. She was through here recently, and she was so pleased with what we had done, especially at the airport. When you’re flying here, there are way-finding signs and signs for scenic drives.
We still have the struggle of why you would want to stop here when you’re on I-90. In Cheyenne, they have a lot of landscaping and greenery, and it’s all very welcoming. So when you're coming off the Lockwood bridge, we have to think about what we could do there to improve things.
I’m not saying we ought to hide the refineries or the coal plant. That’s part of who we are. But maybe we need to put up some billboards that explain that’s what they’re all about and why they’re here.
Q. What kind of feedback are you getting for marketing Billings as Montana’s Trailhead?
A. Had we had a lot more money to spend, it would have been out there in a different way. If you look at our trailhead license plates, there are more and more of them. I think people understand, through conversations and over time, why we decided on this. Over time they do understand it.
Q. We understand that the Chamber/CVB has hired a sports consultant to help attract sporting events. How will that work?
A. We have so much established already, with the Montana High School Association, the Big Sky State Games and Magic City soccer. The ultimate Frisbee guys want to start a winter fest. It might be 100 people the first year, but it could be 3,000 after that. Hiring a sports consultant helped us get AAU Grand Nationals (youth wrestling) for 2013, and we’ll be bidding for 2014 and 2015. It’s going to allow us to focus some more on that.