Tester business workshop focuses on tourism

Bozeman Daily Chronicle

by Laura Lundquist

Tourism may still play second fiddle to agriculture as Montana’s leading industry, but not for long if some of Montana’s small business owners have their say.

About 300 of those business owners traveled from around the state to attend Sen. Jon Tester’s 13th Small Business Opportunity Workshop on Friday at Montana State University.

This is the third time Tester has held the workshop in Bozeman, and this time, the focus was Montana’s tourism economy.

In opening remarks, Mayor Sean Becker said Bozeman was an appropriate location for the workshop because since the time of Lewis and Clark, it has drawn visitors, many who return to settle.

“We’ve always been a town of in-migration, and that brings innovation and a lot of outside ideas. The tourism economy is a huge part of that,” Becker said.

The workshop featured speakers who addressed tourism at both the national and local level, but all said that the tourism industry had nowhere to go but up in Montana.

Tester said a Kauffman Foundation report showed that Montana has the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity in the country, and a lot of that activity is focused on tourists.

Last year, 11 million tourists visited Montana, supporting 43,000 jobs.

“As you know, I come from agriculture, and I believe agriculture brings in $3.6 billion (a year); tourism is $3.2 billion,” Tester said. “We all know the kind of opportunity that is out there to expand that part of our economy and create more jobs.”

In his overview of trends in tourism, Roger Dow, the CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said $3.2 billion doesn’t include spending by Montanans who travel within the state. They probably bump the amount up to around $4 billion, Dow said.

“I often say this industry is the Rodney Dangerfield of industries – we get no respect,” Dow said. “One of the challenges is we’re often seen as frivolous. We represent fun, but we’re also dead serious.”

Tourism spending in Montana is up 15 percent over the past few years, while increases in spending in the rest of the country average about 5 percent, Dow said. Part of the reason may be that people want to visit places that are close during a poor economy, and Montana offers many natural attractions, Dow said.

Dow encouraged the business people to do three things to not only keep their slice of the market pie but to enlarge the pie: make visitors feel special, make things simple and constantly build relationships.

“The world is too complex. People won’t go where things are too hard,” Dow said.

Technology, especially social media, is providing new ways to help service providers build relationships.

John Herzer, owner of Blackfoot River Outfitters, explained during a panel discussion how his business evolved over the years from a Philipsburg fly shop to more of a T-shirt shop to a Missoula fly shop by getting to know his market and hiring good staff.

Herzer said he came too late to get a chunk of the online fly market but has an eBay site. With the prodding of clients and staff alike, he also maintains a blog and a Facebook site that has gained 9,500 followers.

“I came kicking and screaming into the blog thing – we have so much work to do and you need to keep it up,” Herzer said. “But in the first month, the blog visits exceeded our website visits by 10-fold. People like it because it’s new, it’s fresh and it’s interesting.”

West Yellowstone businessman Randy Roberson echoed Dow’s comments about making visitors feel special.

Roberson has grown his Yellowstone Vacations family business for 36 years by helping his guests feel a connection with the park from the minute they step through his door.

“All of our success is tied to customer service, which really should be called ‘customer experience,'” Roberson said.

Dow said the newest national promotion, called “Brand USA,” highlights all of America so it puts all regions on a level playing field.

“People in other countries are saying, ‘I want to see the authentic America,’ so this state has no place to go but up,” Dow said.

The Kauffman Foundation provides grants and research in the fields of education and entrepreneurship. The U.S. Travel Association is a private organization that backs travel industry research and promotion.