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It’s time for the name “Custer Country” to go the way of the 7th Cavalry commander, a five-member committee of the southeast Montana tourism region has concluded.

And it’s not just because some found the name offensive, although that was what set change in motion, said Nick Mann, marketing director for Custer Country.

Six months of research determined that the name didn’t reflect the breadth of the region’s visitor resources and was meaningless to out-of-state visitors, he said.

Custer Country also didn’t play well on the Internet, where increasing numbers of people turn for vacation planning, the study showed.

A recent search for Custer Country online led to websites for Custer counties in Colorado and Idaho as the top two choices. Third was Travel Montana’s Custer Country page (not the Custer Country website), followed by websites for Custer counties in Oklahoma, South Dakota, Nebraska and Montana.

Mann said a new name has not been chosen, but the committee appears to be leaning toward something geographic, like “southeast Montana.” Bland as that may seem, research suggests it may be more helpful than more creative names to visitors unfamiliar with the state, he said.

Research conducted by MercuryCSC, a Bozeman firm, found that 80 percent of Western and Midwestern states use directional names — east, west, north, south — to label their tourism regions.

“Only a few use made-up names,” the study said.

Examples of those are Great Rivers Country and Trails to Adventure in Illinois and Pioneer Country and Lewis and Clark Region in Nebraska. Those may register with locals but not necessarily with potential visitors.

The Custer Country Naming Committee will make its recommendation for a new name at the Custer Country board meeting in February. If the board accepts the committee’s recommendation, the new name will be presented to the Montana Tourism Advisory Committee for final approval.

That the name would be changed was almost a foregone conclusion when the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce took over the regional marketing effort more than a year ago. The name-change request came from the governor and from the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, which is a partner in Custer Country. The Cheyenne were allied with the Sioux in the fight against Custer at the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. The Crow Tribe, whose members served as scouts for the 7th against their traditional Sioux and Cheyenne enemies, also expressed concerns about the name.

Instead of changing the name immediately, Mann said, the governor granted time for Custer Country to do research on how the traveling public reacted to the name, how Custer Country partners felt about the name and how changing the name would affect marketing efforts.

Researchers set up an online discussion forum, did an email survey and roundtable discussions with Custer Country partners, analyzed regional marketing in other states and contacted a sampling of people who had visited Montana and those who hadn’t about their impressions of the name.

Some of the comments from the public were: “The name was not an immediate connotation of the area for me,” “I think Custer Country is, at best, really disconcerting and, at worst, really offensive,” and “The name Custer Country does an injustice to the many wonderful scenic natural wonders of the area.”

Custer Country partners initially were split about 50-50 over whether to change the name, but Mann said some opponents of the name change had second thoughts after hearing research results.

“There was a lot less opposition than originally expected,” Mann said.

The study concluded that to potential visitors, Montana is the draw and tourism regions have little significance in getting them here.

“Once consumers associated you with Montana, then they can find their interests in your region,” the study said.

The name-change analysis was part of a larger Custer Country Research Summit that took a broad look at tourism in southeastern Montana. It showed that visitors’ primary interests in Custer Country were scenery and history, followed by Native American culture, the cowboy/Western experience, dinosaur sites, fishing, hiking and biking and hunting. Large numbers traveled through Custer Country to get to Yellowstone National Park.

Most said they were satisfied with Billings and likely to recommend and revisit Bighorn Canyon and Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

Visitors want better signs, longer hours of operation for businesses and attractions and more local history information, according to the survey.

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Lorna Thackeray can be reached at 657-1314 or lthackeray@billingsgazette.com

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