Niche marketing proves successful for Helena Tourism Alliance

The Alberta license plate and pair of mountain bikes on the back of their vehicle hinted that they were tourists. 

Jeff and Eva LaDuke, a husband and wife from Canmore – a mountain town near the boundary of Banff National Park and in Canada’s portion of the Rocky Mountains – were in Helena on Monday as part of a tri-city mountain biking tour. Butte, Bozeman and Helena are all stops on their itinerary.

Friends who came to Helena earlier are part of the reason the couple was in town.

“The tourism Helena (Internet) site was informative regarding the mountain biking,” Eva said.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association also helped steer them to Helena, Jeff said.

Helena’s trails recently earned a bronze level ranking from the organization.

“It was a close-enough place to where we’re from for a short holiday,” he explained, adding Helena is “a good place to start a mountain-bike holiday. Today is day one.”

In a way it’s no surprise the LaDukes were in the area, as courting Canadians is part of the Helena Tourism Business Improvement District/Helena Tourism Alliance’s strategy to attract visitors.

Helena recently earned a nine-page spread in Decline magazine, said Pat Doyle, the Helena Tourism Alliance’s community outreach director.

While everyone has read about mountain biking in popular destinations such as Moab, Utah, Helena was the topic of the first of the monthly travel features the magazine published, he said.

The person who became the editor was in Helena in June for photos and a story, Doyle added.

The TBID’s work plan for the year was recently approved by the Helena City Commission, as was its $396,000 spending plan for fiscal year 2015, which began July 1.

Among the tourism alliance’s plans are to promote Helena’s geographic location midway between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, said Heidi O’Brien, the Helena Tourism Alliance’s executive director.

An interactive map on the website details the route with photos of what visitors will encounter along the way. 

The alliance is also looking at niche marketing to appeal to small segments of the overall tourist trade. An online presence is a vital part of how it markets Helena and the area’s attractions.

About 10 percent of the visitors to the website, which serves the Helena Tourism Alliance and Helena Convention and Visitors Bureau, are from Canada, O’Brien said.

Among others who check out the website are Montanans, who rank No. 1. She places Utah second, followed by Washington, California and Texas.

“Our website visits really mirror what the state is seeing,” she said.

The tourism alliance takes note of where the state’s tourism efforts are focused and follows suit to get better results for its advertising, O’Brien said.

She wants Helena to stand out from the crowd among Montana cities vying for tourists, and mountain biking is one of the niches the tourism alliance has been exploring to build a name for Helena.

Geocaching is another niche market that the organization has explored and its geo-tour, a partnership with the Capital City Cachers, caught the attention of Rand McNally, whose 2013 atlas named Helena “Best of the Road” for those who want to explore with GPS devices for hidden caches.

A geocaching event is planned for mid-September in Helena, and participants can hunt for caches and redeem passwords for tickets and a chance at $1,040 in prizes.

Another tourism group that the alliance may seek to entice to Helena is those who share a romance with railroads. Helena’s historic railroad yards are already a stopping point for people who come to photograph and watch trains and trainmen, say those who live near the Montana Rail Link tracks, which pass through town.

“People come from all over to watch trains,” O’Brien said.

“People are talking about this train watching, but there is not a community right now that is talking back,” she continued.

However, there have yet been no talks with Montana Rail Link about how railroad viewing could be organized.

“I don’t know what will come from it,” O’Brien said.

Concerned for railroad safety and security, O’Brien looks toward a future grant that could create a viewing platform in a city park for railroad enthusiasts.

“I think niches are our future,” she said.

“You’re not going to stand out in the crowd by being 20 different things,” she said. 

And even though these are small segments of the overall tourist population in Montana, the numbers who travel are not small, she noted.

But getting exact numbers on visitors and where they are coming from is not information that lodging establishments share, and O’Brien explained it as proprietary information for these businesses.