Paddleboarding at Lake Elmo State Park

Travel & Tourism: The Recovery of a Key Industry at Montana’s Trailhead

May 2021

by Alex Tyson, Executive Director – Visit Billings 

Visit Billings is managed by the Billings Chamber of Commerce 

Photos courtesy of Visit Billings

Along with much of the world, Billings’ $500m travel and tourism industry came to an abrupt halt as COVID-19 took hold. Today, as our region prepares for visitors to return, there is optimism that Billings’ travel industry is positioned well for recovery.  

Destination Analysts, a tourism research company, recently stated that American travel sentiment is edging toward positive as vaccinations become more widely available, which is great news for the local tourism industry. This summer looks promising, particularly as people look to return to outdoor attractions and events. However, two key markets that will limit the strength and timing of a “full” recovery are meetings and business travel.  

Cancellations and Postponements   

The way meeting planners tend to operate - signing destination contracts two to four years in advance - is not conducive to campaigning for business for conference destinations like Billings. Many state planners rotate annual meetings across the state’s major cities. If a meeting was set for Billings in 2020 or 2021 and was canceled, it could be years before our community sees that event booking meeting space and bringing attendees again. With regional and national meeting planners, the competition is even more fierce as all destinations clamor for business.  

Business travel is another major player accounting for year-round business for Billings’ hotels and motels, supporting restaurants, retailers, and other businesses. With employees working from home or on travel restrictions, that constant stream of business is not available and can negatively impact the local economy.   

But Billings is fortunate to be a great western destination along the Great American Road Trip with access to national parks and monuments and a popular place for athletes to compete and celebrate. This means that leisure and sports markets will definitely aid in our recovery. 

Destination Development and Investment is Key  

Now, more than ever, the attractiveness of a community and its assets are essential to Billings’ ability to compete as a destination. Along with local events, quality trails, recreational opportunities, and more, Billings Logan International Airport's expansion and renovation coupled with increased capacity and flights is a positive for Billings. 

It’s also essential to continue reassuring the traveling public that our community, tourism partners, and lodging businesses take public health seriously and yield to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 guidelines. Potential visitors must deem Billings as a safe choice for travel. 

As visitation increases in the coming months, it is important to note that without effective promotion and marketing funds like the state lodging tax or Tourism Business Improvement District assessments, Billings would forfeit their economic benefits to competing destinations and fall behind travel competition. If Billings didn’t have great hotels, amazing museums, trails; attractions like ZooMontana, MetraPark, entertainment, or events (to name a few), it would take far longer to recover from the impacts of COVID-19.  

Tourism is an essential part of a positive economic outlook for Billings.  

Originally printed in the May 2021 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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