Biz owner offers local business leaders tour of benefits of tourism

Wednesday, March 11, 2020
Biz owner offers local business leaders tour of benefits of tourism

Bringing it Billings business owner Steve Wahrlich (see story page 2) advises local business people on the potential windfall from attracting more tourists to Dillon during his keynote speech at the Beaverhead Chamber of Commerce & Agriculture banquet last week in the Elks Lodge in downtown Dillon. M.P. Reagan photo

For its annual Business Recognition and Awards Dinner last weekend, the Beaverhead Chamber of Commerce & Agriculture brought in a special guest speaker from out of town.

Who urged local business leaders to consider ways to bring in more visitors from out of town to boost the fortunes of local business owners and everyone else in Dillon and Beaverhead County.

“I think Dillon has a huge, huge opportunity,” said Billings business owner Steve Wahrlich, highlighting the potential benefits of marketing the city and county.

“When you start talking about marketing and merchandising, it’s sort of a virtuous circle. If you start out marketing something, and then traditionally what happens is that you have people who will come,” advised Wahrlich, owner of the ClockTower and Stella’s Restaurant in Billings.

“And then from there, those people normally spend money,” said Wahrlich of tourists.

“And when they spend money, what it does, it creates jobs and increases the tax base,” added the Tourism Advisory Council board member.

“And then it starts all over again, and it goes and it goes and it goes,” added Wahrlich of the multiplier effect of new money coming into a community for other businesses and infrastructure improvements paid for by increased tax revenues.

While the State of Montana markets the state to out-of-state tourists, it’s up to towns and cities and counties to distinguish themselves to attract more visitors, said Wahrlich, a board member on the Montana Lodging & Hospitality Association.

“They are creating the interest in the state. It’s left to the communities to promote what they have. What we have in Billings is entirely different than what you have in Dillon,” said Wahrlich, who believes that Dillon could benefit greatly from a mechanism employed in Billings—a Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID).

“It’s not what I get, it’s how much better I can make it,” recalled Wahrlich of a business epiphany he had years ago.

“If downtown does better, I will probably do better,” said Wahrlich, who came to Billings 15 years ago.

“if we create the Tourism Business Improvement District, Billings will do better; downtown will do better; I will do better. And that’s been my motto ever since, and I have lived that and it was the most valuable lesson I ever learned,” said Wahrlich.

“The TBID is a great tool. Lodging facilities, operators—basically what they do is they assess the guests. So, tonight I paid $8 in tax,” said Wahrlich of the tax he was charged for his stay at a Dillon hotel.

“Well, if this had been Billings, I would have paid $8 plus $2. The difference is that the $2 stays here locally, and the people who operate lodging facilities are the ones who are deriving that, and they are the ones who dictate where it is spent,” said Wahrlich, who estimated that such a fee could generate tens of thousands of dollars for Dillon and Beaverhead County to promote itself to tourists, who would in turn inject hundreds of thousands and even millions of more dollars into the local economy, at a return rate of at least 25 to 1 on the TBID investment.

“You have the opportunity to control your future. Dillon, you have a huge opportunity in front of you,” said Wahrlich, advising that the process could be difficult to get going.

“Will it be easy? No, not at all. Because you sort of have to get together and discuss, ‘what are we going to do?’”

Wahrlich said area businesses could also benefit by becoming their own best marketing tools through word of mouth promotion and improved customer service.

“You’ve got something great and unique to offer, so let’s everybody talk about it. You’ve got to educate the community on what we have. You want people to be proud of what they have,” Wahrlich told the Dillon Tribune of an approach that he says he’s seen pay big dividends in Billings.

“You’d be surprised about how quickly the word will spread,” said Wahrlich, who advised that negative stereotypes about tourists need to be dismissed and replaced by an understanding of what tourism has become and how lucrative it can be for places like Dillon.

“I think part of the perception is that a lot of people hear the word tourism and the immediate thing they think is, we’re going to have all these people with kids on street corners with Mickey Mouse ears,” said Wahrlich.

“Tourism is a broad general name. It includes outfitters and guides. The no. 3 expenditure in this town, in this county, is outfitters. That’s a core business. That’s what you promote. You don’t’ promote it as tourism, but as fishing, hunting, outfitters. It’s getting people to talk about it in a different way,” said Wahrlich.

“To me, that’s what Dillon is. You’re not Disneyland. You’re outdoors. You’re looking at hunting, fishing, climbing, sightseeing—those are the opportunities that you have,” added Wahrlich.

“It’s a clean business. People come and they spend their money and leave.”