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Montana's Ad Campaigns Go Viral, Upping Expectations for Tourist Season

By John Harrington, Independent Record, Helena, Mont.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

June 27, 2010--There are signs of illness surrounding some of the state's tourism marketing efforts this summer -- and the director of Travel Montana is delighted.

"Our campaigns have really taken on a viral component above and beyond our expectations," Betsy Baumgart said in an interview as Montana's peak tourism season draws near.

In marketing terms, "going viral" can mean taking advantage of social media to spread a message, or to relying on other, unpaid media and word-of-mouth to give a campaign legs far beyond its initial exposure and cost.

Baumgart said Travel Montana is focusing its 2010 out-of-state marketing efforts in three major markets -- Seattle, Minneapolis and Chicago -- with positive results in all three.

Rather than relying solely on traditional broadcast or print advertising, the agency is trying a new approach, including the posting of scenic Montana panoramas on the sides of city buses and inside subway cars, and plastering large images of the state's grandeur in vacant downtown storefronts.

The campaign took off earlier this month, when a writer for the Chicago Tribune, fed up with (or perhaps jealous about) the scenic photos of Montana wallpapering the city's subway cars, announced a contest called "Take THAT Montana!" and encouraged readers to send in their own scenic photos from around Illinois.

"They are trash-talking us, Chicago!" wrote reporter Barbara Brotman. "Montana is thrusting its mountainous finger right in our Midwest faces, taunting us with its magnificent scenery and world-class outdoor recreation."

As of late last week, nearly 150 photos had been uploaded by Chicagoans showing off the natural beauty of their urban area. While taking pride in their own state, those folks are also, by contributing photos and bringing more eyeballs to the contest, helping Montana's marketing effort -- at no extra charge.

"It basically grows legs, the campaign spreads out beyond where you place the ads," Baumgart said.

The campaign got a local boost as well, when the Missoulian decided to fight back with its own pages of reader-submitted photos of Montana's beauty.

Baumgart cited other examples of Travel Montana's paid advertising getting a free boost. In Minneapolis, she said, a television reporter wondered why his home state wasn't marketing itself with huge scenic photos the way Montana is.

And in Seattle, a photo of a pedestrian walking in front of a huge photo of a Montana mountain goat landed on a section front in The Seattle Times.

In recent years, Travel Montana has tried to hone its marketing to not only narrow the population it's trying to reach with its message, but narrowing the media it's using to reach them.

Gone is national television advertising -- too expensive, both to produce and to buy the airtime, and not targeted enough, Baumgart said. In its place, Travel Montana is buying space in magazines like the New Yorker and National Geographic Traveler, and supplementing those buys on websites like backpacker.com and other outdoor-oriented sites.

The agency can track not only those website visitors who click through an advertisement immediately, but those who see an ad, don't click at the time but come back to visitmt.com at a later date.

After an exhaustive effort to develop a "brand" for Montana, the state's marketing efforts focus primarily on the theme of "spectacular, unspoiled nature," Baumgart said.

"The technical term (for the desired market) is geo-traveler," she said. "People who really want to go somewhere where they get a sense of place, and a very authentic experience, not only in geography but in culture."

In 2009, Montana maintained its out-of-state visitor count at around 10 million, though those folks didn't spend as much money last year as they did in previous years.

That leaves Baumgart hopeful that if visitor numbers remain steady and Americans are comfortable spending more this year, Montana's tourism industry could enjoy a strong summer.

"Nationally what we're hearing is people are traveling a little bit longer, and there's some optimism from consumers that there's a little more money to spend," she said.

Locally, the outlook is for a flat summer compared to last year -- and that seems to satisfy local officials.

"Here in Helena the hoteliers are really optimistic this summer, not that we're going to see great things, but that we should at least hold our own," said Mike Mergenthaler, head of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Mergenthaler said 2010 has thus far been a mixed bag for the hospitality industry. Hotels here had their best April since 2001, but followed that up with the weakest May since 2005. In both cases, he said, the edges were incremental -- there are no wild swings.

As in many other segments of the local economy, the hospitality industry appears insulated from both the booms and the busts experienced nationally. For the first five months of the year, the area's 16 hotels saw average occupancy of 56.5 percent and an average room rate of $76.79. Those figures are nearly indistinguishable from the 58.9 percent occupancy and $76.50 average rate in 2009 (a legislative session year) and 57.4 percent at $75.17 per night for the first five months of 2008.

"These weekends like this one really help," said Mergenthaler, noting that the Mount Helena Music Festival, a car show and a softball tournament are all drawing visitors. "We haven't experienced nights that the whole town has been full for a few years, and this year we're starting to feel that once in a while."

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To see more of the Independent Record, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.helenair.com.

Copyright (c) 2010, Independent Record, Helena, Mont.

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