When Glacier Country Tourism first opened its doors in 1985, the travel industry in Montana hardly existed.
Fast forward to now and tourism is one of the top two industries in the state, bringing in billions of dollars annually.
That growth has come with its own set of challenges, including aging infrastructure, overcrowding, affordable housing, workforce shortages and impacts on the lifestyle of local residents.
Glacier Country Tourism — western Montana’s regional destination marketing organization — aims to address those challenges while working to sustain the state’s growing tourism industry through its new Destination Stewardship Strategy initiative.
“We have significantly grown the tourism industry to become one of the two industries in Montana that brings in billions to our economy every year,” said Glacier Country Tourism’s President/CEO Racene Friede. “Until about five years ago, our work really focused on travel promotion.”
“But now it’s really more about us thinking strategically about all the communities and figuring out the amount of tourism each community can handle,” Friede said. “We want to find a good way to sustain it, but still manage to maintain that quality of life for the people who live here.”
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On Monday in Hamilton, consultants hired by Glacier Country Tourism will begin an ambitious effort to gather public input for the proposed 10-year plan at a public town hall meeting at the Bitterroot River Inn from 9 to 11 a.m.
The meeting is the first of many to collect public input from citizens in the eight-county area and 75 communities contained within the boundaries of the western Montana tourism region.
“We are literally doing eight town halls in five days,” Friede said.
The town halls offer residents their first opportunity to learn about the proposal and provide input. In addition to the eight town halls next week, Glacier Country’s team of consultants plan to directly engage hundreds of residents through one-on-one interviews, focus groups, and electronic surveys.
The planning process is part of an ongoing shift away from destination marketing that has been the group’s focus for most of its history. Friede said the Destination Stewardship Strategy might be a first of its kind due to the lengths the organization is taking to get the public engaged.
“We can’t do something like this behind the scenes,” Friede said. “We have to go into each of the counties and really talk with the people who live there. We need to find out what’s happening on the ground. What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?”
The tourism organization has already been adapting to the realities on the ground level. This year, its campaign focused on the people who were giving the great out-of-doors a try after concerns over COVID-19 kept them away from Disneyland or other more populated tourist attractions.
“It was a visitor that we hadn’t necessarily seen or even marketed to in the past,” Friede said. “They were new to outdoor recreation. They just weren’t quite familiar with how to do it and how to do it safely and responsibly. Our entire campaign this year has been about how to recreate responsibly. Whoever this new visitor is, we want them to be good stewards to our communities, just like us.”
The expectation for the strategic plan is there won’t be a one size fits all kind of solution.
“One of the challenges is we don’t have just one community to work with,” Friede said. “We have 75 communities. Every single one is special. They have a different makeup. They have different services. They have different assets.”
She hopes residents will take the time to help Glacier County Tourism understand those differences.
“We are just trying to figure out what are the hopes, the dreams, the challenges, the opportunities of the counties, communities and the residents who live there,” she said. “We want to know how we can help them achieve their goals in a balanced and responsible manner.”
Glacier Country Tourism is one of six tourism regions in Montana. The regions received their first funding for travel promotion through the 1987 state lodging facilities tax. Glacier Country includes Ravalli, Missoula, Mineral, Sanders, Lake, Lincoln, Flathead and Glacier counties.
The group’s second town hall will be in Missoula County at the Seeley Lake Community Hall from 3 to 5 p.m.
While registration for the town halls are encouraged, they are not required. People can also participate through online surveys. There will also be a virtual town hall meeting on Friday, Nov. 12 from 2 to 4 p.m.
The organization hopes to have the plan completed in May or June.
For more information or to complete a survey, go to partners.glaciermt.com/destination-stewardship.