UM institute studies Montana’s vital tourism industry — even during a pandemic
By Erika Fredrickson
At UM’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, there’s an art to the in-person survey. The institute, which has conducted research on travel, tourism and recreation since 1987, started doing in-person surveys in 1989 to capture data on Montana tourism from visitors and residents.
ITRR has used a variety of methods for asking questions. One approach is to deploy a surveyor to a busy gas station, rest area or airport, where all types of travelers are likely to stop. At gas stations, the “captive” audience is manning the nozzle.
“Our surveyor will walk up, ask if they’re visiting from out of state and if they’re willing to take a survey that will last only as long as it takes to fill up their gas tank,” says Jeremy Sage, an economist and ITRR associate director. “And almost every time, they say yes.”
Those three or four minutes at the pump are enough time to gather a lot of solid data: Where the person’s from and if they’re traveling for business, recreation, vacation, visiting family and friends, or just passing through. How the person spent money in the last 24 hours provides a one-day snapshot of spending on food, lodging, gas and car rentals, as well as recreational services like fishing guides. The nonresident also is offered an extensive mail-in survey in which they can track their travel itinerary across the state.
“With the mail-in survey, we get a whole bunch more information about their stay that we couldn’t have gotten in those three or four minutes at the gas pump,” Sage says.
In all, ITRR intercepts 10,000 to 12,000 visitors a year and gets about 3,000 extended surveys back in the mail.
All of that in-person surveying made sense before COVID-19, but once the pandemic hit, the institute had to adjust its methods and expectations. UM’s Research and Creative Scholarship Office halted all face-to-face surveying. But even if they could have done in-person surveys, the lack of people traveling would have made it near impossible.
“It really changed the dynamic,” Sage says. “Welcome to 2020.”
ITRR, located in the University’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, is considered the research arm for Montana’s tourism and recreation industry. The work it does is used across the state to make decisions regarding tourism planning, promotion and management.
Besides in-person nonresident surveys, the institute conducts a variety of economic impact and spending studies of niche outdoor recreation, including projects about alpine skiing, bicycle touring and mountain biking/hiking trail usage, as well as outfitting and guiding throughout the state — all important components of Montana’s tourism industry.
ITRR has studied the impact of fires to the tourism industry, the closure of the Yellowstone River due to the whitefish die-off and the impact of increasing gasoline prices on travel behavior. Its breadth of knowledge about Montana’s vital tourism industry and its experience in thinking about how visitors, residents and businesses experience tourism helped it pivot after the pandemic hit.
Without an option to survey in person, ITRR sent emails to their panel of contacts: tourists and residents they’d intercepted in the past who might be amenable to responding. Their ever-growing list of tourism-related business owners also was used to study the impact of COVID-19 from the business owners’ perspective. The results revealed changes in traveler behavior and ideas for businesses to survive the pandemic. And because ITRR had started surveying people before the pandemic hit Montana, the information provided a picture of how attitudes changed quickly over the course of a few weeks.
“It was a really good baseline,” says ITRR Director Norma Nickerson. “We saw that business people were a little concerned at first, but not as much because it really hadn’t hit Montana yet. Two weeks later, it was a huge deal and they were frightened. Their phones were ringing off the hook with cancellations. There were no phone calls for reservations for the summer. They didn’t know what to do. You could see it in their responses how worried they were about even being able to stay afloat.”
By the time the third wave of surveys went out in April — the height of the spring cases of COVID — ITRR’s research showed that, on average, travel businesses were eliminating eight positions each. For just the 440 respondents ITRR got via the third survey, that amounts to the elimination of 1,575 full-time jobs, 779 part-time jobs and 1,904 seasonal jobs that otherwise would be filled for the summer.
Going into the summer, tourism went up but so did the COVID cases, so businesses were weighing the economic side against the health side, fearing another shutdown, not wanting to contract the virus themselves, not wanting to be a business where there is an outbreak and wondering if they would make it for much longer.
Nickerson says that when it comes to collecting data on tourism, some years will have their oddities. But this year, the April through June quarter is simply not there.
“We didn’t collect any in-person data for the entire second quarter of 2020, so our model is going to be a total blank, like nothing existed,” Nickerson said. “And there’s nothing else we can do with that. Once things start settling down, whenever that may be, we can start getting an idea of where this could be going, where the trends are.”
Every year ITRR also does a resident survey, usually in the fourth quarter, but this year they completed it earlier to gauge residents’ attitudes about tourism right now, in the thick of the pandemic. Those attitudes about how tourism impacts communities (good and bad) will be compared to the attitudes from all the previous year’s annual collections.
“While we anticipate changes in resident attitudes toward tourism, the only other time a change was detected was in 2001,” Nickerson says. “For the first time, residents did not agree with the statement, ‘The overall benefits of tourism outweigh the negative impacts,’ likely caused by the use of airplanes as missiles into buildings in New York City and D.C.”
Sage says the institute also collects travel-related trend data from other organizations and keeps an ear out for anecdotes that speak to the tourism climate. Those anecdotes help support research about how people are responding to the health crisis and how it’s affecting the tourism industry.
“We were hearing that people were getting out of urban areas and coming to Montana to ride the pandemic out in a short-term rental for a month or so,” he says. “We started hearing from state parks too, that as soon as there was camping opening up — even though we had that 14-day quarantine — the number of out-of-state plates in these campgrounds were on a steady climb.
“We heard instances of disregard from some of those folks toward state park staff trying to talk to them about quarantining,” Sage says. “Between these anecdotes and quantitative survey data, we were able to get right on it and get information out there for everyone to understand what’s happening in Montana’s travel industry because of COVID-19.”
Financially, the institute’s research abilities took a big hit with the pandemic for an obvious reason: People stopped visiting the state. The less obvious problem was this: ITRR gets a lot of its funding from statewide bed tax dollars, which are collected by motels, resorts and other lodging facilities. Nickerson says that since she started in 1995, the only other time there was a reduction in revenue was during the 2008 recession.
“We made it through 9/11 and smaller recessions in the late ’90s,” says Nickerson, who plans to retire early next year after over 25 years as ITRR director. “2008 was bigger, because gas prices impacted travel. But this time around is not a little reduction. I’m projecting that our budget for this fiscal year that started July 1 will probably be down by about half.”
While those tax dollars are down, ITRR and two consulting firms recently landed a contract worth up to $40 million over the next five years from the National Park Service. That funding will help them study social issues and visitor use that will guide park service planning and management around things like congestion, transportation, visitor behavior and an array of other issues facing the park system.
In July, ITRR finally restarted its in-person surveying — with some rules. They can still approach a stranger at a gas pump, but they have to stay six feet apart and wear a mask. They have to ask the person if they’d be willing to wear a mask. Travelers still are offered a chance to continue the survey on the provided mail-in forms. However, if the traveler is uncomfortable taking the mail-in survey with them, the surveyor asks the person for their email address so they can complete the survey online.
Certainly, 2020 will be a strange year to evaluate in terms of tourism impact, but ITRR’s work in pinpointing attitudes and behaviors in this historical moment will be invaluable to historians, educators and the tourism industry as we head into an uncertain future.
“For our resident survey, we added some questions that are specifically related to COVID-19 to see if their general perception of the value of tourism changed now that we know these tourists aren’t just bringing in money, they’re potentially bringing COVID with them,” Sage says. “So we can look at whether that perception of tourism still holds value and does that value outweigh the risks of these travelers.
“It’ll be interesting to see what Montanans are really thinking about when it comes to tourism, and then the tourism industry will have to decide how to respond to these new attitudes.” •