From the Feb. 19, 2013 edition of the Billings Gazette
by Lorna Thackeray

Peter Christ, co-owner of Bridge Creek Backcountry Kitchen and Wine Bar, plans to staff his Red Lodge restaurant for a big summer.

Business was up last year and “I think we’re seeing a continuing trend,” he said. “People are buying a little more, spending a little more money.”

The restaurant on the resort town’s main street draws customers for its strong supply of fresh seafood, but the core of its success is local meat and fish.

“Customers really enjoy the local flavors,” he said.

Increasingly, visitors to Montana are looking for more authentic encounters — more personal interaction, said Sarah Lawlor, spokeswoman for the Montana Tourism office.

“The tourism industry in Montana takes pride in offering that kind of experience,” she said.

The state’s promotion arm has plastered Seattle, Chicago, Salt Lake City and Portland, Ore., with big, bold images of Montana’s great outdoors in a campaign with proven results, she said.

“We’re going to continue to have a presence in those markets,” Lawlor said.

An effective marketing campaign, combined with an improving economy and stable gas prices, could translate to another good season in 2013, the veteran tourism official said.

“It’s honestly looking like a pretty positive atmosphere out there,” she said.

Preliminary data from the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research projects a 2 percent increase in nonresident visitors in 2013 and a 4 percent increase in spending.

It’s a modest figure, slightly lower than the 3 percent growth estimated for 2012.

Hope springs from a number of indictors. Gas prices, always a worry when 87 percent of visitors arrive by car, could be lower than last summer. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects gas prices at $3.43 a gallon, compared with $3.63 last year.

Montana’s major attractions have had some good press going into the season. Glacier Park is on Lonely Planet’s list of top 10 destinations for 2013. The Missouri Breaks is listed in National Geographic’s “Best of the World 2013,” and Yellowstone Park was at the top in several US News categories. USA Today made the park No. 2 on its list of top vacations.

Tourism-related businesses surveyed by UM researchers indicated that 64 percent expect increases in 2013 and 33 percent expect to remain the same. Few are anticipating decreases.

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