Destination Missoula celebrates 15 years, looks to future in evolving industry

Barb Neilan, executive director of Destination Missoula, speaks toward increased air service at Missoula International Airport. The organization, which is celebrating its 15th year, markets Missoula to cities served by direct air service to Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

What began as a committee of the Missoula Chamber of Commerce more than a decade ago has blossomed into a full-blown marketing organization, promoting the city’s $330 million tourism industry to the outside world.

Destination Missoula, which celebrated its 15th anniversary this week, is looking to the future by writing a tourism master plan and promoting the city’s burgeoning music and arts scene, along with its history, culture and natural resources.

“I’ve often said, my hardest job is to get people here the first time,” said Barb Neilan, the organization’s executive director. “Once they come the first time, they fall in love with this community. More than 84 percent of the people who come here the first time will come back, and continue to come back.”

Neilan, seated in her office overlooking Main Street in downtown Missoula, considered the organization’s past and where it’s headed over the next decade.

It began as a committee of the Missoula Chamber, though tourism advocates sought their own path forward. They formed Destination Missoula in 2003, and Neilan came on board as the executive director the following year.

“There came a point in time where tourism leaders in the town felt there were other things they wanted to do with the money, and they felt it would be more advantageous to the industry,” Neilan said of the split that occurred 15 years ago. “Once you reach a certain level of growth in the community, they should be separate.”

Back then, the organization approached the Missoula City Council to lobby for a bed tax, and its inaugural budget was $100,000. It relied heavily on promotions involving print ads and a small presence on the Internet.

Social media didn’t exist at the time, though it now plays a prominent role in how the organization markets Missoula.

“That’s how you reach people,” Neilan said. “It’s such a powerful tool. You can reach people instantly. They’ve got it so dialed in that you can reach the exact demographic in just the exact area you’re trying to influence.”

While the state conducts its own tourism research, which helps, Neilan said Missoula “ is a different entity” and is unique in Montana. As such, it attracts a different demographic than other communities.

To reach its targeted audience, Neilan said the organization looks to cities served by direct air service into Missoula, and other cities within driving distance. It also works to promote what Neilan described as Missoula’s niche markets.

“This year we did a big music initiative to get Missoula out as a music destination, because it is,” she said. “We very specifically targeted the cities we knew that had a large music interest and could get here easily, like Seattle and Portland, and even down to San Francisco and our new Dallas flight. We also look at our drive markets, because those are the quick turnover markets. It’s really a scientific thing.”

Tourism in Missoula pumps more than $329 million into the local economy, with 4 million visitors stopping in the city each year. The industry creates 3,300 local jobs, and provides other benefits as well, Neilan said.

“When you look at tourism on a statewide level, every family in Montana would be paying about $419 more in taxes if tourism didn’t exist,” Neilan said. “I don’t think people realize how much money goes into our general fund that fixes roads, helps the hospitals and creates the education. Tourism does all that and always has done all that.”

As travelers search for that “authentic experience,” Neilan believes Missoula is well positioned in the years ahead. It’s growth and vibrancy, coupled with stronger air service and local offerings, bodes well for the industry’s future.

“We’ve decided it’s time to do an actual tourism master planning process,” Neilan said. “I am going to be bringing information back to the board in December on what that process looks like. If we’re going to do it, we really want to do it well and do the research inside and outside this city.”