Sportsman’s Expo Draws Thousands to Fairgrounds

Businesses gather to show wares and take advantage of growing outdoor recreation economy

There may be feet of snow on the ground and a chill of single-digit temperatures in the air, but at the Flathead County Fairgrounds Trade Center last weekend, the focus was on all the fun that sportsmen and women hope to have outdoors in the coming spring, summer and fall.

Organizers of the annual Montana Sportsman’s Expo, which ran from Feb. 23 to Feb. 25, expected up to 6,000 people to wander through the exhibits showing off local wares and experiences.

Dennis Johnson, who runs the event with his brother, George Johnson, said the 2018 expo included nearly 80 vendors, from nonprofits touting their outdoor services to gear companies providing the outdoor supplies.

“We’ve done this for seven years,” Dennis Johnson said last week. “We wanted to build a community-based event. It’s not about making money — we both already own our own businesses.”

Events like the Montana Sportsman’s Expo are popular around the country in the pre-spring months, and the local event has grown since the Johnson brothers took over seven years ago.

Before the Johnsons’ ownership, the event gathered crowds but had begun to lose momentum through the years. When the Johnsons took over, they brought with them expertise they had earned in their other businesses. Dennis Johnson owns The Party Store, an event rental store in Columbia Falls, and George Johnson owns Northwest Convention Services out of Columbia Falls.

Together, they combined time, talent and equipment to build the Sportsman’s Expo. The first year they were in charge, they managed to bring in 65 vendors and 4,500 people, which Dennis Johnson said wasn’t bad for only six weeks of organizing.

And with so many tourism and outdoor-based businesses depending on summer to make a bulk of their annual revenue, it’s never too early to start advertising for the season.

Outdoor recreation has always been a part of Montana’s fabric, but as the economy continues to grow and define itself post-recession, it has taken on more financial importance.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation generates roughly $7.1 billion annually in Montana in consumer spending. The industry supports more than 70,000 jobs and pays more than $2 billion in wages each year. The OIA also reported that 7,800 jobs in Montana are sustained by hunting and fishing, compared to 7,000 jobs depending on mining and logging.

This makes outdoor recreation the largest sector of Montana’s economy, and Gov. Steve Bullock announced last year the creation of the state Office of Outdoor Recreation.

While 81 percent of Montanans participate in outdoor activities, the outdoors also draw out-of-state and out-of-country visitors. When the Johnsons first launched the renewed Montana Sportsman’s Expo, they happened to host it during a long weekend for Canadians, generating plenty of visitors from our neighbor to the north.

The expo continues to grow in various ways; along with more vendors, the Johnsons are able to offer free kids’ activities and hourly door prizes, including sleeping bags, guided fishing trips, camping stoves, and much more. This year, the big raffle item was a $6,000 four-wheeler, Johnson said, and next year they might be giving away a camper trailer.

It’s also a chance for the community to come together over similar activities and help each other out, Johnson said — expo-goers could donate canned food to the Veterans Food Pantry and receive $1 off admission, generating thousands of cans of food for the pantry.

The more excitement they can generate for their event, the more local businesses will be able to take advantage of the outdoor recreation momentum here, Johnson said.

“We have a lot of fun,” Johnson said.

For more information about the Montana Sportsman’s Expo, visit www.montanasportsmansexpo.com.