Community attracts first-time visitors

Two reports from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana reveal positive trends for the Big Sky area as a tourist destination. 

While there was a slight dip in the total number of tourists coming to Montana between 2016 and 2017, the 12.2 million nonresident visitors who made the trip last year spent more per visit than the previous year. 

“It’s a good thing,” said Norma Nickerson, director of the tourism institute. “What stands out right away for Big Sky is that 25 percent of all groups are first-time visitors. We don’t see that typically in Montana in general. Big Sky is a magnet. And when you can get them to Montana, they’re coming back.”

“We’re thrilled that Big Sky Resort can contribute positively to the state’s economy, and we are honored that we play a role in helping introduce first-time visitors to this wonderful state,” said Chelsi Moy, public relations manager with Big Sky Resort. 

As a ski destination, Big Sky typically logs a higher percentage of skier visits than its competitors around the state and this season’s excellent snow conditions may drive up overall visitation numbers. The recently released results have yet to factor in data from the fourth quarter of 2017. 

The tourism institute uses “interceptors” to gather some of its data. It assigns survey takers to different regions and the one assigned to Big Sky also covers Gardiner, Livingston, Bozeman, the airport and West Yellowstone. 

These data collectors show up at places like the Big Sky Conoco, where they approach car-loads of tourists and begin peppering them with questions. The data collector inputs answers into an iPad and does not survey big bus groups.

Nickerson said the information collected from those who’ve been “intercepted” reveals a lot about who’s coming to Big Sky and what’s bringing them, with Yellowstone National Park registering as the obvious top draw. 

The current survey size for Big Sky is 72 respondents, which statistically “equates to 3.5 percent of all nonresident visitors” or a total of 369,734 people.

Those intercepted and surveyed had an average age of 52 and were most likely to hail from Utah, Texas, Michigan, Washington or Minnesota. Four percent of those in the study came from Australia, 2 percent from England and 1 percent from Alberta. The average group size was around three travelers, most likely couples or families. 

Nickerson pointed to another interesting trend: Summer trips to Glacier National Park generated the state’s biggest travel bump, when Glacier welcomed 1 million visitors in July alone.

“That’s something Yellowstone has never done in a single month,” said Nickerson. “So you look at what could have happened if the fire wasn’t there.”

Wildfires closed Glacier’s doors just as it was setting visitation records. In fact, last summer’s wildfires drove away enough tourists to trigger a $240 million loss in visitor spending. Big Sky made out better than Glacier and other tourist areas in Western Montana, where most of the smoke was concentrated. And even though the skies around Big Sky were often smoky, compared to places like West Glacier, Big Sky “was a breath of fresh air,” said Nickerson. 

About 9 percent of would-be visitors cancelled their summer trips to Montana because of the fires and smoke, while around 7 percent shortened their stays. Some diverted to Big Sky.

“The displaced travelers relocated their travels to 16 different identifiable counties across Montana,” stated a recent institute report on the impact of forest fires. “The largest recipient of these visitors was Gallatin County.” 

Gallatin County welcomed 18 percent of those who said they changed their Montana plans and tried to find somewhere that wasn’t too smoky last summer. 

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