Aiming High in Big Sky Country

New marketing campaign showcases Montana as land of realizing dreams and opportunities

By Molly Priddy
Eduardo Garcia, founder and chef of Montana Mex, presents at the Governor's Conference on Tourism in Kalispell on April 11, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Five years ago, Eduardo Garcia was hiking in the backcountry of Southwest Montana, when he saw what looked like a dead bear.

He approached the hulking carcass, and decided to use his knife to touch the creature. Upon doing so, the live wire underneath the bear transmitted 2,400 volts of electricity through the animal and into Garcia.

The lights went out, and Garcia awoke on the forest floor. Despite having spent more than a decade as a chef on yachts in the world’s most fabulous places, Garcia’s first memories upon waking were of home in Emigrant, Montana.

He heard the shuffle and scratch of walking on a gravel country road, and then the sweet call of the western meadowlark, which had flown across his path.

“The fact that my memories are of gravel and a meadowlark singing, that brought me back to life at age 30, I’ll have that forever,” Garcia told a crowd of nearly 500 people at the 2016 Montana Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Recreation, held at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kalispell from April 10-12.

Daunted but not broken, Garcia battled back through losing his left hand from the accident, along with serious bodily trauma and injury. While in the intensive care unit, he also learned he had testicular cancer, and asserted that his chemo treatment should take place at his home in Emigrant.

All the while, Garcia was developing his brand of natural Mexican food products, Montana Mex, having tested his wares at the Livingston farmers market. Battling cancer and coming back from his injury reinforced to Garcia what a special, healing, and supportive place Montana is.

He and his business partners rewrote their business plan, adjusting it to focus on becoming a national brand. Garcia’s story has been one of realizing opportunity and then taking it, all the while keeping his roots deep in the Montana soil.

Garcia’s story is also part of his new ambassadorship with the Montana Office of Tourism and its new campaign for travel in Big Sky Country: “The Sky’s the Limit.”

Through this campaign, the tourism office will highlight stories from around the state that are quintessential Montana, and could only happen here, according to Jenny Pelej, the chief of marketing and business development for the tourism office.

“This campaign is all about personal connection with the environment, connection with others, and connection with this magnetic state,” Pelej said.

Tourism is one of Montana’s leading industries, with more than 11 million out-of-state visitors spending about $3.6 billion here in 2015, supporting nearly 53,000 jobs.

Showcasing Montana as a special kind of place, a place where dreams can be realized surrounded by some of the best views North America has to offer, will make the marketing campaign open ended and applicable to personal goals and stories, she said.

Raylee Honeycutt, consumer marketing manager at the tourism office, said the goal is to promote the idea of “endless possibility and potential,” and several new videos on the tourism office’s website tell three different stories of people finding themselves and what’s important to them here in Montana.

“Our state is a magical place. It’s a place that we are all lucky enough to experience every day, living it and breathing it,” Honeycutt said. “When tourists come, it’s somewhere that always stays with them.”

The idea of promoting Montana can be tricky, Garcia acknowledged, because the relative wildness is the backbone of its appeal. In order to keep the state as special as it is, Garcia said he does his best to ensure his visitors are in touch with the land and feel like its stewards, to give them a sense of ownership and protectiveness.

It’s a balancing act, he said, but it’s important if Montanans want to keep living in this special place.

“How do we share something that is Montana, something that is not infinite in its raw material? How do we share that with others while also protecting and preserving it at the same time?” he asked. “How do we let them know that truly here in Big Sky Country, the sky is the limit?”

For more information, visit www.visitmt.com or tourism.mt.gov.

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