Written by Devon Boen
If you were a tourist passing through eastern Montana, what would it take for you to stop and stay for a few days?
This was the main question at the strategic tourism planning meeting held by the Montana Office of Tourism in conjunction with Open Window Consulting. The Montana Office of Tourism contracted Open Window Consulting to hold seminars across the state and gather information about tourism in Montana.
The two organizations have been working together to visit the entire state of Montana and gauge the tourism needs and wants of individual communities.
On Tuesday, Oct. 16, Julie and Jim Cerenzia from Open Window held a seminar at Great Northern Development Corp. in Wolf Point and community members came out in droves to voice opinions and offer advice on the tourism business in the area. Attendees included business owners, museum representatives and employees from the rural employment office and the Fort Peck Tribes. Multiple members of the Missouri River Country Board were present as well.
According to the Montana Office of Tourism website, tourism generates $2.8 billion each year for Montana’s economy and $276 million in state and local taxes. It also said every Montana household would pay nearly $700 more in taxes each year if not for the thriving tourism industry in the state.
Tourism also creates jobs and pays $1.05 billion to Montanans’ salaries. The importance of the industry is clear, but northeast Montana is one of the lesser visited areas in the state and the seminar hoped to generate ideas to rectify this fact.
The Cerenzias said the Montana Office of Tourism approached improving the industry by having high level goals, strategies and using actions and tools.
The goals included improving the economic benefits of tourism, preserving state assets and quality of life and creating better jobs.
They said their strategy included offering a better product, using effective marketing and creating a culture of respect in the tourism industry.
Part of an improved product would be improved amenities, lodging growth, etc.
The Cerenzias looked to the group to gain a better understanding of what northeast Montana’s needs were for tourism.
One attendee said the need for amenities was great, pointing out there were not enough public bathrooms, hiking trails, RV stops or proper directional signs.
Several other people agreed. A member of the Missouri River Country board said he believed Fort Peck Lake was a greatly untapped tourism resource. He said he spent a weekend in the area and looked at his experience from the perspective of a tourist. He thought it was difficult to navigate and didn’t offer enough lodging, food or resources.
He also brought up how hospitality staff in the area could be a great way to promote tourism by having employees make suggestions to guests and point them in the direction of a sight or event they wouldn’t otherwise know about.
Stemming from this idea, another attendee listed off multiple special or interesting places and historical sites tourists could visit. Unfortunately, many of these small gems don’t have enough publicity and tourists simply miss out on the great parts of the area.
It became clear marketing was also a large problem. It was suggested the area work on search engine optimization in order to make sure all tourist hot spots are the top results when out-of-towners research the destination online. It was also suggested the gas stations, hotels and businesses in the area carry brochures about all the tourism destinations so anyone passing through can quickly grab a pamphlet and, hopefully, decide to stay and experience what northeast Montana has to offer.
One woman present ran her own guest ranch and believed this was an untapped market. She and others thought locals in the area could easily start their own guest ranches in order to encourage tourists to come and experience the true Montana lifestyle and simultaneously offer more much-needed lodging.
Another attendee said she had interacted with foreign tourists and discovered their main interest in northeast Montana is Native American culture. She said this was a particularly untapped resource for the Fort Peck Reservation.
Those coming from another culture are fascinated by Native American culture and the heritage could be brought to the forefront and displayed more so others can learn about the history, religion, customs and languages of the tribes in northeast Montana.
The Cerenzias, as well as the community members, determined they would have to engage visitors and increase the cultural presence of the tribes and offer modern amenities, more events and entertainment.
Now that Open Window Consulting collected public opinions, they will start forming a strategy and a comprehensive plan to ultimately change northeast Montana from a gas station stop into a full-fledged tourist destination.