Missoula will play host to an expo this summer geared toward the great outdoors, marking an inaugural bash intended to attract visitors from across the region while showcasing Montana’s $6.2 billion recreation economy.
Jeff Wright, founder of the nonprofit Montana Outdoors Foundation, said discoveries will made during the three-day event, whether you’re a resident and thought you knew it all or a visitor looking to learn.
“The idea behind it came from the work I do with the state as a Montana ambassador – an appointed position by the governor,” Wright said. “It’s a great way to bring together manufacturers, retailers, designers, distributors, outfitters, guides and nonprofits that all operate in the state and bring them together in one place to talk about what they’re doing.”
Two years ago, Gov. Steve Bullock courted the Outdoor Industry Association and its national trade show after the organization had a falling out with Utah’s political leaders over their stance on public lands.
In promoting the state, Bullock noted Montana’s adherence to the North American Model of Game Management and its statewide access program on private lands. More than 1,000 landowners enrolled 7.2 million acres of land in the program in 2015, providing more than 360,000 days of hunting.
Bullock also highlighted Montana’s stream access laws and its business climate. In doing so, he quoted Outside Magazine when it described the state as the “Silicon Valley for Outdoor Gear.”
While the Outdoor Industry Association chose Colorado over Montana, primarily due to population, Wright is looking to pick up where Bullock left off and build a similar venue closer to home.
“The more ambassadors I talk to, the more companies we uncover that operate in this industry, and some people are totally unaware of them and sometimes they’re in the same county,” Wright said. “There’s a lot of awareness to build in Montana on who does what kind of business and where.”
Tourism and recreation have grown to become one of Montana’s leading industries. In 2017, according to the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, nonresident visitors spent $3.4 billion in the state, supporting nearly 55,000 jobs.
Residents traveling within the state spent an additional $2.9 billion. And while Glacier and Yellowstone national parks serve as the biggest draw and get much of the attention, Wright said there’s plenty more to discover.
“This is for the set that wants to take their relationship with Montana further,” he said. “The sole goal is to highlight the state, attract attention and visitors to the state, and be able to build that ecosystem over the next several years.”
Wright’s participation in building the event came from his love for off-road travel. He calls it “overlanding,” a fancy word for taking a properly suited vehicle on a deep and far reaching adventure.
Some might also call it car camping, he said.
“Montana is the perfect state for that,” he said. “It’s got thousands of miles of logging roads, Forest Service roads and BLM roads, and just back roads that crisscross the state for people to explore. For Montanans it’s normal but for people outside the state, they’re generally really intimidated by it.”
As planned, Wright said, the Montana Outdoors Foundation’s expo will offer something for everyone, from outdoor gear and supplies to raw adventures. It will also offer classes on a range of topics, from fly-fishing to first aid.
The event is scheduled for July 19-21 at Fort Missoula Regional Park.
“The ambassador role itself is really designed to help further businesses in the state of Montanan by aiding them in getting bigger and scaling, or attracting businesses in from outside the state,” Wright said. “Montana still holds that mystery in a lot of people’s minds. This event can really create this sustaining ecosystem we could do annually.”