Putting Whitefish on the Map

By Beacon Staff

For city dwellers in need of a break from frenetic urban life, Montana seems like a grandiose getaway. Perhaps they’ve seen the movie “A River Runs Through It” or are familiar with John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley.”

But the question is: How many of these people can actually point to Montana on a map?

Jan Metzmaker says a startling amount can’t, as she has found out during her stint as director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau. Her mission is to make sure more people can at least point to Whitefish, raising another question: How do you market a city?

“Someone in Chicago doesn’t just wake up and say I’m going to Whitefish today,” Metzmaker said. “Somewhere you have to plant that seed.”

Metzmaker and Lisa Jones, who operates the public relations arm of the WCVB, are planting seeds all across the nation, using a persistent marketing approach and revamped Web site at www.whitefishvisit.com. Through their efforts, feature articles about Whitefish and WCVB’s members have appeared in a wide range of publications, including the New York Times, National Geographic Adventure and dozens of others.

This year, with a $300,000 operating budget, the WCVB is poised for its biggest year yet. Public relations people for Oprah Winfrey, after reading a story about Whitefish in Women’s Health magazine, contacted Jones on Friday about featuring the little Northwest Montana town on an Oprah show.

“Publicity breeds publicity is very true,” Jones said.

As with any nonprofit organization, funding is always an issue, though the WCVB’s relatively hefty budget this year is a night-and-day difference from last year’s meager financial situation. The Whitefish City Council recently approved the $80,000 public portion of the WCVB budget, which comes from bed tax collections. The state collects bed taxes and then divvies them up to city entities like the WCVB.

The rest of the WCVB’s budget comes from membership fees, which are 1 percent of each member business’s gross sales.

Most members generate money to pay the fee by implementing a voluntary 1 percent tourism promotion assessment (TPA) on bills. The city recently responded to a letter from a concerned Whitefish resident who expressed frustration over the assessment. Councilor Nancy Woodruff stressed that the TPA has nothing to do with the city and is not a tax because it’s not imposed by the city.

Metzmaker said members – such as restaurants and hotels – are supposed to clearly separate the assessment on a customer’s bill, describing what it is and saying it’s voluntary. The letter writer argued that this is not always made clear. Metzmaker conceded that some members need to do a better job of distinguishing the TPA, adding that the high turnover rate of seasonal employees means that newer workers occasionally don’t understand the assessment.

Customers don’t have to pay the fee, though not all know this. Metzmaker said the WCVB steering committee will address the TPA issue at its next meeting.

“We’re not trying to be deceptive here,” Metzmaker said. “The intent is not to ding the locals.”

Jones said she has about 1,000 writers that she keeps in regular contact with through newsletters. Working with her $95,000 portion of the WCVB budget, Jones uses that money to buy plane tickets for journalists, show them around while they’re in town and cover all of the other day-to-day operational costs. Member hotels provide accommodations free of cost, Jones said, while member restaurants take care of the food.

About $110,000 of this year’s WCVB budget is for advertising, but Jones said the ad rates of bigger publications like National Geographic are far too exorbitant for WCVB, some going for more than $40,000 per page. So the main focus is articles, which she says are more effective than advertising.

“People tend to believe something that’s been done first-hand rather than a paid endorsement,” Jones said.

Or as Metzmaker says, a glowing article “generates more business at a restaurant or a hotel than you can imagine.”

Metzmaker said the WCVB is far ahead of schedule. The WCVB broke away from the Flathead Convention and Visitors Bureau in 1998 and then in 2006 became a volunteer bureau of the city, achieving nonprofit status. Metzmaker said she didn’t expect to have a $300,000 budget for several more years after the 2006 reorganization.

“A year ago we were just scraping it together – I didn’t get paid a few months,” Metzmaker said. “I’m thrilled.”