Counting on Canada

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – From Great Falls to the Flathead Valley, Canadians are flocking to northern Montana in search of lower prices for goods, entertainment and even housing, all at a favorable exchange rate. These visitors, riding high from an oil boom back home, are being welcomed with open arms by a Montana business community that’s still trying to emerge from the recession.

In the Flathead, nowhere is the influence of Canadian money more apparent than in Whitefish, where its ripple effect is seen throughout the economy, including the real estate market. Canadians are building and buying second homes in the Whitefish area, providing much of the momentum behind a market that is stabilizing quicker than in surrounding areas. Driving through town, don’t be surprised to see an occasional Canadian flag rippling in the wind.

Donna Townley, an economics professor at the University of Lethbridge, was the keynote speaker at a Feb. 8 Whitefish Chamber of Commerce luncheon entitled “Doing Business with Canadians.” Business leaders from around the community listened to Townley followed by a panel consisting of Deb Coulson from the payment-processing company NXGEN, Glacier Bank Whitefish branch President Lin Akey and The Toggery owner Trek Stephens.

Townley, who owns a second home in Whitefish, said conditions are ripe for attracting Albertan consumers because the province is flush with oil money and the exchange rate is favorable. She noted that Canada has a “commodity currency,” meaning the strength of the country’s dollar is tied to commodities and its foremost commodity is oil.

“What you have to do is figure out how to get that money here,” Townley told the crowd.

At the luncheon, Coulson discussed a new program spearheaded by NXGEN called “Canadian Certified,” which encourages retailers to make adjustments in their credit card capabilities that allow them to accept Canadian Interac PIN debit cards. The program is considered a breakthrough for retailers and fits in with a larger overall effort to welcome more Canadians to the valley.

One major component of this effort is marketing and promotion, through advertising in media sources in Albertan urban centers such as Lethbridge and, increasingly, Calgary. But the effort also includes less obvious but, according to Townley, important gestures that make Canadians feel like they’re home when they visit the valley, like flying their country’s flag.

“Canadian flags are very welcoming,” Townley said, adding: “We feel this is our second home.”

Though Townley’s comments were specifically directed at Whitefish, her sentiments ring true for other parts of the Flathead Valley. Diane Medler, director of the Kalispell Convention and Visitor Bureau, said the same principles discussed at the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce event are on the radar of Kalispell businesses, including the Canadian Certified debit card program and raising Canadian flags.

“We’ve increased our awareness of the importance of being inviting,” Medler said, noting that even small gestures “may be the deciding factor in whether they choose here or Great Falls.”

Downtown Whitefish

Pedestrians walk past an American flag and Canadian flag hung from the Crystal Winters store front on Central Avenue in downtown Whitefish.

A case in point, as described by The Toggery’s Stephens, is accepting Canadian debit cards. Visitors from Alberta are able to purchase something at a local store regardless of whether their debit cards are accepted, since they can use credit cards or withdraw money from an ATM, but it’s an inconvenience they may remember and tell friends about. Townley also said Canadians prefer debit cards over credit cards.

“It’s more about the relationship at the register,” Stephens said. “It’s the feeling that’s created there.”

Goods are more expensive in Canada, Townley said, in part due to taxes, making Flathead Valley stores attractive to the northern neighbors. The same can be said for nightlife and various forms of entertainment, including skiing. In her presentation, Townley noted the higher beer prices in Alberta as well as higher-priced ski resorts.

Townley says it’s incumbent upon Flathead businesses to advertise their lower prices, promoting the valley as both a shopping and entertainment destination. One concern, however, raised at the luncheon is the high cost of advertising in Calgary, where the economy is robust and the median household income is far higher than in the Flathead.

Medler said a valley-wide cooperative has been formed that will help local tourism organizations “leverage our dollars,” with an eye on addressing the issue of Calgary’s high advertising costs. She sees Calgary as an “emerging market,” adding that British Columbia can be another a target area.

In addition to paid advertising in traditional media sources, Medler said her organization takes advantage of social media and e-newsletter marketing. Local tourism officials also attend consumer shows in Alberta, Medler said, and work directly with tourism entities there such as the airport and mall.

Medler, offering a piece of anecdotal evidence of Canadians’ impact on the local economy, said during Black Friday some of Kalispell’s hotels reported that 75 percent of their guests were from north of the border. Medler noted that the Montana Office of Tourism’s “Get Lost” marketing campaign is increasing its efforts in Canada.

At the Whitefish chamber event, Dee Brown, who owns the Canyon RV Campground & Cabins in Hungry Horse and is running for state senate, raised the idea of creating a Montana trade office in Calgary.

In a later interview, she said bed tax collections could be used to fund the office, perhaps instead of the state’s trade offices in Asia, though she would like to hear from the public and business community. Brown is holding a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. on April 17 at Grouse Mountain Lodge to discuss the idea.

Brown said in the last five years “Canadian business has been growing and growing,” and she would like to ensure that Montana is capitalizing on those business opportunities as much as possible.

“If our economy needs a shot in the arm, I think this is one way we can help,” Brown said. “It’s not just tourism. We’re all feeling that Canadian oil boom and we should take advantage of it while it’s hot.”

Donna Townley will also be speaking at a Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Feb. 21. For more information, call (406) 758-2800.