Montana Department of Commerce praises Lewistown for tourism efforts

By: 
CHARLIE DENISON
Senior Reporter
Friday, November 1, 2019
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A sign on Highway 87 west of town directs travelers to Main Street, part of local tourism efforts.

Photo by Deb Hill

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Jan Stoddard

How do we bring more tourist dollars to Lewistown?

Much discussion took place on this topic Thursday morning at Central Feed Grilling Co. during an Eastern Montana Tourism Partnership Initiative outreach meeting.

Dax Schieffer of Voices of Montana Tourism, and Jan Stoddard, Benjamin Gill and Raylee Honeycutt of the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development led the meeting, the last of their multi-town tour, which included stops in Billings, Poplar and Miles City as part of an effort to put more time and resources into promoting and enhancing tourism in eastern Montana.

Community leaders such as Chris Cooler, Holly Phelps, Karen Kuhlmann, KellyAnne Terry, Carly Wheatley and others were also present at the meeting.

Schieffer started the discussion, sharing that he is encouraged by the direction of Montana tourism. There are statistics to back up this enthusiasm. According to the Montana Department of Commerce, the number of non-resident visitors to the state has grown 24 percent since 2008, from 10 million to 12.4 million persons annually. 

 “Looking at the bed tax as a metric, it’s clear there has been consistent solid growth,” Schieffer said. “We are talking about 6 to 7% growth.”

This success, however, is not reflected in all counties, as the Montana Department of Commerce states in their recent “Increasing Bed Tax Collections in Eastern Montana” project overview.

“Despite this being a period of growth for the state overall, hotel tax collections have actually declined in the eastern region of the state over the last few years,” the report states.

 Lewistown is no exception, as bed tax money has decreased. One major contributor to this is the closing of Mountain View Motel. The Montana Department of Commerce wants to change this, so they have spent the last year assessing the situation and working to understand the “needs, ambitions and opinions of residents of eastern Montana as related to tourism,” according to an overview included in a recently released research report.

The report also includes ideas from local communities gathered during 14 listening sessions. These sessions helped create a set of recommendations for industry key regional stakeholders to consider using to spur visitation and “develops quantitative benchmarks for measuring success.”

This marked the third time the Montana Department of Commerce has visited Lewistown in the last few months, holding listening sessions in March and June. Thursday’s meeting focused on the work that’s already been done, where things are with the project now and what communities such as Lewistown can do to capitalize on Montana’s growing popularity as a tourist destination. 

The report indicates there are many challenges for eastern Montana, as it’s off the beaten path, has limited financial and human resources and has a lack of customer service training and support, but Schieffer believes the people of Lewistown are overcoming many of these obstacles and working hard to “promote economic development, maintain its integrity, connect better with statewide marketing efforts, and develop and redevelop tourism assets and amenities.” 

Schieffer said Lewistown has many of the assets that attract tourists, including the trail system.

“Congratulations on your success,” he said. “You guys are the envy when it comes to communities and what you’ve done with the trail system. Rah-rah Lewistown.”

Jan Stoddard was also full of compliments for Lewistown, especially those working on promoting Lewistown. She congratulated Lewistown committees for receiving two grants through the Eastern Tourism Initiative: an $11,000 grant to enhance marketing for Winter Fair and a $35,000 Nature Tourism grant to increase signage, also known as wayfinding.  

“I give you kudos,” she said. “You understand there is an interface between tourism and recreation. It’s great to have a lot of recreational assets, but unless people can find information about it, know how to get there and know a little bit about the experience before they get there, they’re not going to do it. They’re not going to feel safe about it, they’re not going plan for it, they are not going to put extra time into their schedules.”

Stoddard praised Lewistown’s wayfinding project as exactly the kind of marketing needed to set potential tourists at ease.

“This wayfinding project is going to help identify mapping, routes, recreational assets you want to promote, trail maps and the promotional aspect,” she said. “I think this will be a model of how to do a good job of marrying two things together and really inspiring and educating people about how to use the recreation around you.”

Schieffer, Stoddard and others hope to see Lewistown continue its positive momentum and keep working to attract more tourists their way.

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