Next to tables laden with hiking boots, set up at the Blue Creek Sports Shooting Complex, Christine Vanhouten paused for a few minutes in the cool Monday morning breeze to praise Billings as a beautiful city.
“One thing I like about OWAA is when they choose their location it’s not a touristy town,” she said.
Vanhouten was in town for five days as the spouse of Outdoor Writers Association of America member Jay Vanhouten, of Midland, Mich. They were two of about 300 who attended the annual conference in Billings over the weekend.
“This is the largest registration we’ve had since 2009,” said Tom Sadler, executive director of the association. “I would credit the location and the program. I think our members want to see Montana.”
The Outdoor Writers Association of America has a membership of 750 individuals and 150 supporting groups, companies like Hobie Cat, which was showing off its latest kayak designs at the gun club.
“The attraction is it’s an outdoor writer’s group and we have outdoor products,” said Ingrid Niehaus, public relations director for Hobie Cat. “It’s also a great place to network, and it’s helped us spread the Hobie Cat word.”
The word for Hobie Cat this year — unveiled just five days ago at a fishing trade show in Florida — is its new MirageDrive propulsion system for kayaks that now has reverse.
It’s also a place for a Red Lodge-founded business like MyTopo to generate interest in its mapping capabilities.
“I’ve gone all over the country for these,” said Paige Darden, of MyTopo. “It’s the first time we’ve had it in our backyard.”
Former newspaper editor and now deputy press secretary for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in Zieglerville, Pa., Terry Brady has been attending Outdoor Writers conferences around the country for the past 16 years.
Brady praised the locals for their friendliness.
“They let you know they’re glad you’re here,” he said.
The conference is also about the location.
“You’ve got so much around here, whether you’re a fly fisher, biker or hiker,” Sadler said. “You can have a conference anywhere, but if we don’t have outdoor opportunities nearby we’re not serving our members well.”
The benefit to a city like Billings to host such a group is that many of the writers, photographers and videographers will produce stories about the area to spread the word about Montana and Billings as recreation destinations. Tourism is Montana’s second-largest industry, which in 2014 generated almost $4 billion in spending.
“I think it’s great for the state and the people of Billings,” Brady said. “Some of these people will come in early and stay late, too.”
Alex Tyson, Visit Billings executive director, lobbied hard to bring the group to Billings, starting as far back as 2013.
“The publicity end is the icing on the cake,” said Kelly McCandless, also of Visit Billings.
Billings is riding an outdoor recognition high. In May the city was named Outside magazine’s Best Town of 2016, based on online votes, beating out Jackson, Wyo.
When OWAA was formed 89 years ago, Sadler said it was a “bunch of ink-stained wretches and guys using darkrooms.” Since then the industry has transformed dramatically with the arrival of the internet, blogs and digital photography, forever altering the nonprofit group and its members, he added. Despite all of the technology upgrades, though, some things haven’t changed.
“We are the ones communicating to the American people about the value of these outdoor opportunities,” Sadler said.
Having the Outdoor Writers conference in Billings is “a great way to showcase what you have to those Americans who want to be in the outdoors,” he added.
OWAA members and spouses Jack Ballard and Lisa Densmore Ballard, of Red Lodge, played a big role in organizing the local event. Lisa is the outgoing president of OWAA and Jack was the local chairman organizing the outings. For them the conference has been a nonstop whirlwind of activity with long days and short nights. Now that it’s over they’re looking forward to a little quiet time.
“It’s been all-consuming,” Lisa said. “But we’re excited.”
Certainly, Christine Vanhouten is leaving the conference with a positive perception of the conference, the area and its people.
“This city has a lot to offer,” she said. “We toured Pompeys Pillar, and that was beautiful, and we did the Little Bighorn Battlefield history tour — that was nice to see. We visited downtown; it’s a great place to walk around.
“It’s all about the location whether I come along or not.”
For her, having the conference in Billings sealed the deal.