Banking on Tourism Season

By Beacon Staff

LAKESIDE – The docks at Lakeside Marina are empty now, but that won’t be the case in a few weeks.

As summer quickly approaches, businesses around Flathead Lake are gearing up for peak season for tourism, which has become the state’s second-largest industry, only behind agriculture. Last year, 10.5 million people visited Montana and spent $2.77 billion.

Mike Phillips, general manager for The Docks Restaurant and Lakeside Marina, hopes to get a piece of that pie. Last week Phillips and his crew were moving tables, washing docks and planting trees, readying for the onslaught of tourists that should begin over Memorial Day weekend.

“We’re getting spruced up, enjoying the sun and knocking down the cobwebs,” Phillips said.

Phillips has been keeping his eye to the sky recently, noting that his business, like many others along the lake, live or die by good weather. For example, last year the tourism season got a late start due to a rainy June and Phillips said things didn’t really get rolling until July 4.

“It’s weather dependent, but if it’s a nice day, we’re as busy as can be from open to close,” he said. “It seems the weather gods are giving us an early spring.”

According to Racene Friede, executive director of Glacier Country Tourism, one of the largest attractions in Montana is Glacier National Park and one-third of out-of-state visitors come to the northwestern part of the state. She said that is a huge benefit to the surrounding communities, especially those located along well-traveled highways.

“Glacier is our calling card; it’s the crown jewel that people are most interested in,” she said.

According to the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreational Research, 87 percent of out-of-state residents who visited Flathead County in 2011 were there primarily to see Glacier.

Glacier is one of the reasons Hilary Shepard is opening up the Mountaineer in Bigfork. Shepard said the town on the east side of Flathead Lake has lacked a local outdoors and recreational store and she plans to change that when hers opens this weekend.

“What we’re offering wasn’t here and we’re filling a void,” she said.

Shepard said in a town like Bigfork, summer is obviously going to be the busiest season and making enough money to survive the rest of the year is critical. It’s an issue that all lakeside businesses face, even old standbys such as Somers Bay Cafe, just across the lake.

Owner Dennis Hatton said during the summer months he employ up to 12 people, but during the offseason that drops to four or five. He said most businesses consider it a solid year if they break even during the winter, but in order to do that, it means long days behind the grill and running orders to the front of the house. Even on a recent weekday, weeks before the real summer traffic begins, Hatton’s employees were busy waiting on the lunchtime rush, a preview of the next three months.

“It gets to be August and you need a break,” Hatton said.