BILLINGS - Tourism has come back better in Montana than the rest of the country, according to Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association (MLHA).
The association wants to make sure the Montana Legislature allocates enough of the bed tax money to go toward marketing Billings and the rest of eastern Montana. That was part of the message Wednesday during the second day of the group's three-day conference at the Northern Hotel in Billings.
Association officials noted that COVID-19 took its toll on the tourism industry, and while some states are still feeling the impacts, Montana has experienced some recovery. That's in part because of access to the great outdoors at a time when cruise ships and amusement parks were shut down.
"Montana was kind of their answer to that, to get out and explore and have fresh air," said Dax Schieffer, director of Voices Of Montana Tourism, which is part of the MHLA. "So we've benefited somewhat from that. But now it's really a matter of keeping that momentum and having the tools in place that can keep that growth happening."
But even in Montana, what's happening in the western part of the state isn't necessarily true in eastern Montana, and that was the case prior to COVID-19. That was the focus of some of the conversation in Billings on Wednesday.
"The importance of tourism as a whole to the state, to Yellowstone County, to Billings, is very important," said Visit Billings executive director Alex Tyson. "It helps us market and sell Billings as a tourism destination."
The group discussed legislative priorities for the upcoming session and the need to focus more on the state's marketing efforts to promote communities like Billings.
Schieffer says travelers spent an estimated $948 million in Gallatin County in 2018 and 2019 and $613 million in Flathead County, the state's most popular tourist communities. Yellowstone County trailed far behind with $312 million spent.
Schieffer wants to let the state Legislature know that marketing money from bed tax collection is still needed in eastern Montana.
"These communities really could use some help when it comes to keeping a lot of their shops and their restaurants and their stores open," Schieffer said. "And when you do that, and you can subsidize that with visitors. It makes the community that much stronger."