Tourists drawn to the Flathead Valley by the sweeping views of Glacier National Park often feel the incentive begin to dissipate behind a cloud of smoke during a bad wildfire season.
When the iconic draws to the valley are made more difficult – or even hazardous – to enjoy by fire and smoke, local tourism agencies adjust their strategy to convince those visitors to keep their plans and check out other local amenities.
Lisa Jones, public relations manager with the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau, spends most of the year working to entice visitors to the area. But in late August when hotels are booked but the people holding those reservations are weary of a wildfire-impacted trip, she works to make sure those hotels and businesses are prepared with talking points to mitigate those fears.
“Essentially, it’s all about getting the information people need out to them and making it accurate and factual,” Jones said. “In the past, we would send someone up to Logan Pass to take a picture. Now, we have webcams and faster information and ways to get information out. The tools have changed and the fires have changed.”
She said when people see viral videos of dramatic wildfires, some think the hotel they have booked in Whitefish could be in danger of going up in flames.
Making sure the hotels have good sources of information, along with facts about air quality and who is and is not at risk, can help tourists make a more informed decision about their summer plans. She also makes sure people are aware of all the other recreational amenities in the area that aren’t impacted by fires.
Once they have that information, she said visitors often choose to come despite the smoke.
Edna White is sales and marketing director with Averill Hospitality, the company that manages The Lodge at Whitefish Lake and The Firebrand Hotel in Whitefish. She said they field lots of concerned calls, but the resources provided by Jones’ team help them give out good information and mitigate the bad impacts of fires.
“A lot of times we talk about Glacier National Park being in our back yard, but when it comes to wildfires we are not in any imminent danger in Whitefish,” she said.
She said they do see people cancel their plans despite having all the available information, but this year they actually got a bump from guests who had booked at Lake McDonald Lodge in the park but were pushed out by the Howe Ridge Fire. She said they try to share resources from Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau on their social media pages, and have had lots of positive interactions with prospective guests on Facebook.
They also email guests year-round before they arrive to let them know about events going on in the area during their stay, and tweak those messages this time of year to include information about how their stay may be impacted by fires.
White said that for the time being they have the tools to address the issue, but she is also concerned about the long-term impacts of elongated fire seasons year after year. She believes it could change the standard shoulder season and permanently alter the tourism schedule in the valley.
“It does seem like wildfires are just a reality of what is happening in the West in general,” White said. “When people are making future travel arrangements, I would expect that we would see a shift in when people plan to come. I think we might see people coming in the springtime rather than late August.”
Those interested can find some of the wildfire-related marketing materials from the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau at www.explorewhitefish.com.
Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org.