Northwest Montana’s biggest summer attraction – Glacier National Park – is launching nearly a decade of road improvements to Going-to-the-Sun Road in one of the biggest, longest-term, and most expensive projects the park has undertaken since the road was built 75 years ago. That has regional tourism leaders concerned.
“People hear the word ‘construction’ and have a knee-jerk reaction,” says Lisa Jones, President of LJ Communications, Inc. in Whitefish.
The concern is that negative perceptions may drive visitors away before they even reach the park. “Or worse yet, misinformation about construction might cause visitors to miss experiences they would thoroughly take pleasure in,” explains Jones. “But if given accurate information, the whole rehabilitation project is so well planned out that people can still enjoy the park.”
In response, Glacier National Park and Flathead Valley Community College have linked forces to educate local businesspeople, many of whom rely on dollars brought in by the park. Amy Vanderbilt, Communications and Outreach Manager of Going-to-the-Sun Road Rehabilitation for Glacier National Park, points out, “Because the park was concerned with the impacts to gateway communities, this became one of the first national park projects to look at socioeconomic impacts in driving decision-making.”
The decision to keep the Sun Road open to visitors during the rehabilitation means that construction rides tandem with touring the road. “But if people think the park is a mess, we’re going to kill small businesses that rely on it,” Jones says. That link between Flathead businesses and Glacier Park is a strong one.
“Glacier National Park is definitely the economic driver for our area,” says Dori Muehlhof, of the Flathead Convention and Visitors Bureau. The park draws more than 2 million visitors every summer and functions as the cornerstone for bringing $768 million into the region. In Flathead Valley alone, businesses garner $297,092,216 in revenues connected with park visits.
According to an April 2007 study by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, 75 percent of the Flathead’s vacationers visit Glacier Park. The number one thing to do? Driving – an activity 67 percent of Glacier’s visitors do for pleasure, mainly along the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road. Other top-rated activities include wildlife watching and hiking.
The study also reveals that 80 percent of park visitors are repeat visitors. “Most visitors plan to come back within two years,” explains Jones. “If they don’t have a good experience because they’re misinformed, then they most likely will not come back at all.”
Glacier is also important to Montana – which relies on tourism as its second largest industry. In 2006, the state drew 10 million visitors who dumped $2.75 billion dollars to the economy.
While tourism leaders and park officials opt for language to describe roadwork in positive terms, like “rehabilitation,” most locals are acutely aware of construction and more likely to be irritated with delays. “Many out-of-towners are impressed with the spectacular scenery, no matter what,” points out Jones. “When you come from elsewhere, how bad is it to be stuck on the Sun Road for five minutes looking at Bird Woman Falls?”
To counter possible negative perceptions associated with the Sun Road improvements, Glacier and FVCC are launching their own marketing program aimed at front-line desk clerks, wait staff, sales personnel, tourism businesses, gas station attendants, guide companies and anyone else who might be interested. A certified trainer with Montana Superhost Customer Service Seminars and an adjunct FVCC faculty member, Jones presents the free one-hour Powerpoint presentation, “Glacier National Park – Get the Facts.”
Intending to minimize dollar loss to surrounding communities due to misperceptions, the program explains the road’s status, its plan for the future, traffic delays, public transportation, alternative experiences, new things to see, and ways to get up-to-date information.
Using historical and modern photographs, it points out that Glacier Park’s 1 million acres offer more than just the Sun Road and Logan Pass. It describes the Sun Road’s uniqueness as one of two roads in the country listed as a National Historic Landmark and the only road recognized as a National Engineering Landmark. Construction work even adds to the engineering marvel. The presentation concludes with a hit list of the top 10 things visitors need to know: tidbits like when the last new free hiker shuttle leaves Logan Pass at night.
“Glacier National Park – Get the Facts” is scheduled to run 50 sessions throughout June and July for groups of 15 or more. Local communities interested in hosting a training session should contact Jones at 406-862-7977. Smaller groups may join a “Get the Facts” program scheduled at 10 a.m. on July 10 at the Hockaday Musuem of Art in Kalispell.
Muehlhof reports that Flathead lodging properties are ahead of schedule with bookings this summer. That’s momentum tourism leaders want to keep up.
“If you went to New York, would you skip the Statue of Liberty because they had some construction going on?” asks Jones. “It’s so important for our long-term tourism economy that people understand the road plan this first year. Reactions can affect the next eight to10 years.”