WEST GLACIER – Nicolas Lee spent years in the corporate world, establishing a foothold in Hong Kong’s import trading market and building up his resume at Christie’s auction house in New York.
But none of that could properly prepare him for the challenge of operating a rafting business in Northwest Montana. A peak season that lasts eight weeks at most and unpredictable weather are just two of the puzzles Lee must figure out as one of Great Northern Resort’s three new owners.
And out of Glacier National Park’s 2 million annual visitors, only between 1 and 2 percent go rafting. There are four rafting companies in West Glacier alone dipping into that limited tourist demographic.
So Lee and other raft company operators have reached a conclusion – they need to get more people on rafts and they need to work together to do it.
“If we can get that 2 percent up to 3 percent or more, it’s not unreachable and it would help this whole industry immensely, ”Lee said.
Darwon Stoneman, co-founder of Glacier Raft Company, said such cooperation requires a less conventional business approach, one in which the philosophy is to pool resources and “not take each other’s business.” He said his close relationship with the new owners of the Great Northern Resort is a good start.
“For years, I’ve wanted all of the rafting companies to work together to promote rafting rather than fighting over pieces of the pie,” Stoneman said. “I want to create a bigger pie. We can advertise together and promote whitewater rafting and it would be to all of our advantages.”
Lee owns the Great Northern Resort with his wife Victoria and Carl Motes-Conners. They officially took over on April 1. The previous owner was Reno Baldwin, a whitewater pioneer who opened Great Northern Resort in the late 1970s, around the same time the Glacier Raft Company started up.
Sally Thompson, one of Glacier Raft Company’s three owners along with Stoneman and Onno Wieringa, said her business is “the oldest continuing raft company in Montana, and probably one of the oldest in the West.” The business operates the Glacier Outdoor Center.
Before buying Great Northern Resort, the Lees and Motes-Conners worked at Glacier Raft Company. During their time there, they established friendly relationships with the owners and staff. When they moved down the street to run their own business, they kept those relationships alive.
The owners of both raft companies communicate regularly about marketing strategies and industry trends. Lee said he also keeps in touch with the owners of Montana Raft Company and Wild River Adventures.
The four West Glacier rafting businesses teamed up for June’s Middle Fork Marathon, an event that raised more than $7,000 for Columbia Falls’ Historic Red Bridge restoration project. First Best Place Task Force was also involved with the fundraiser.
Part of the Stoneman’s marketing vision is working with groups such as First Best Place Task Force. He is also active in a newly formed entity called “Gateway to Glacier – the Canyon,” which is focused on stimulating the area’s economy during the shoulder seasons.
Thompson, of Glacier Raft Company, said it’s important to create memorable outdoor experiences for visitors, whether it’s through her own company or one across town, to keep them coming back.
“It’s a combination on everybody’s part – assuring that everybody who goes on the trip has a good time and tells other people about it,” Thompson said. “That’s the best kind of advertising.”
Thompson calls West Glacier the “whitewater capital of Montana.” But while the area is best known for whitewater rafting adventures down the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, the companies also offer more leisurely scenic floats and guided fly-fishing trips.
Glacier Raft Company, with 86 employees and 38 full-time guides, is the biggest of the four companies. It also offers year-round activities, including 10 kilometers of cross-country skiing trails and snowshoeing in the winter. The Lees and Motes-Conners plan to keep Great Northern Resort open all year, and they acknowledge that part of the business plan is “piggybacking” off of Glacier Raft Company’s winter success.
Nicolas Lee said the Belton Chalet is also holding winter events. The more businesses that try to make it work during the cold months, the better chance the region has of creating a viable winter season, Lee believes.
“If there’s a critical mass of stuff open here, people will come up,” he said.
Working together, Lee said, is the best way to counteract the disadvantages of having a two-month peak season.
“There’s going to be snow on one end of the season and snow on the other end of the season,” Lee said. “Cooperation is really the key to grow this.”
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