Units of measurement
Pinning down visitation numbers for Big Sky is part data collection, part horse trading
The available numbers detailing Big Sky’s tourism industry indicate it’s been a good winter. But when people ask Candace Carr Strauss with Visit Big Sky—“How many visitors does Big Sky attract?”—all Carr Strauss can do is guess.
“I get asked every day and I don’t have an answer,” said Carr Strauss. “We have no gauge on visitations.”
Instead, there’s a curious collection of data and indicators that don’t add up in a quickly digestible way if you want to know exactly how many visitors pour into the community at specific times.
These data points range from spikes in the amount of water flushed through the sewer system on peak days to how Skyline saw demand for bus service go up 7 percent for local trips in Big Sky and 10.7 percent for travel between Big Sky and the Gallatin Valley during fiscal years 2016-17.
Another gauge is the 4 percent lodging tax. In its breakdown of revenue collected as 4 percent of lodging prices paid by visitors to Big Sky, the Montana Department of Commerce shows in 2012, $1.2 million was collected. This nearly doubled by 2017, with $2.3 million collected. In its presentation of the data, the Department of Commerce specifically tells readers to understand these numbers, “should not be considered an equal correlation of increase or decrease in the number of travelers.”
So again, the lodging tax offers another statistical window into the local tourism industry, but not a defining picture of exact visitation numbers. Same goes for local resort tax collections—which are also on the rise. This is a likely but unverifiable sign more people are visiting Big Sky. It may also show visitors and locals alike are spending more. The numbers reveal a steady uptick in collections from around $3 million in 2013 to an estimated $7.6 million this year.
The Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana offers an interactive report generator where you can get a glimpse of who’s coming through town. For Big Sky, it taps a sample size of 85 nonresident survey respondents who spent a night in Big Sky and it contains some helpful info nuggets.
•Average length of stay in Montana: 7.31 nights.
•72 percent are on vacation.
•1 percent booked through Airbnb.
•58 percent came to ski and snowboard.
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. For Big Sky, it’s also encouraging that an impressive chunk of visitors flying into Montana come through the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN). It handled 1,199,537 passengers during 2017—up 8.3 percent compared to 2016 and it was the eighth consecutive year of record-breaking passenger traffic at BZN.
The Gallatin Airport Authority reported in January that passenger traffic at BZN has increased by more than 500,000 passengers since 2010 and BZN now accounts for 30 percent of all airline passengers traveling to and from Montana, making it the busiest airport in Montana.
Projected growth at the local airport is a helpful sign of potential growth in the number of visitors coming to Big Sky, but again, it’s not a precise headcount of how many visited and how many more might come in the future.
When conjuring a guess about how busy Big Sky will be this summer, there’s some insight to be gleaned from horse traders in Billings. Every March, Jann Parker hosts a sale for dude ranch owners and outfitters looking for good recreational horses to take on trail rides and pack trips. Surveys show 24 percent of nonresident Big Sky visitors hire an outfitter, so when outfitters head to the Billings Livestock Horse Sales to buy more horses, that could be a sign that Montana’s guest ranch industry is in for a busy summer.
This March, Parker saw 513 animals sold, with some outfitters going away empty handed because demand exceeded supply.
“People are having to pay good money for a nice horse,” said Parker, who in a typical month will take in horses from 22 different states and parts of Canada, then see buyers come from just as many different places to purchase the animals.
“We market the sale at Billings as a destination horse sale,” said Parker. “We want people from all across the U.S. They want the mystique of the West and this is it.”
“Mystique” is a quality even harder to measure than visitors to Big Sky. Managing a destination’s mystique—its intangible allure—and getting a good census of tourist visits are common challenges faced by resort communities everywhere.
The Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research’s Norma Nickerson said, “Visitor count numbers are very tricky, especially for communities. Big Sky could invest in a research project similar to one we did a long time ago—late 1990s—for Virginia City and Nevada City where we used traffic counters and then sampling days where we stopped a sample of vehicles on random days throughout the season and found out the ratio of locals to non-locals. It’s a big project, but it worked!”
In addition to helping local businesses plan according to fluctuations in visitor numbers, having a reliable accounting of all tourist visits would be helpful in a few ways. For instance, it could inform debates over local infrastructure needs and whether or not Big Sky is getting loved to death.
Visit Big Sky’s Carr Strauss explained, “There’s constant conversation at the resort tax board that we’re battling ‘over-tourism.’”
By “over-tourism,” Carr Strauss means some claim Big Sky is attracting too many tourists, an argument she doesn’t necessarily buy.
“Really, how do you know? What gives you the ability to say that there’s too much pressure on the system?” asked Carr Strauss, saying there are four months out of the year during the shoulder seasons when guest occupancy might be between 5 and 10 percent.
Then, continued Carr Strauss, “We have three weeks where we’re at 75-85 percent occupancy. That’s three weeks. That’s not ‘over-tourism.’”