‘Sky’s the Limit’ for tourism: New Montana campaign outlined

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The state’s newest tourism campaign focuses on telling Montana stories to draw in visitors — and the dollars that come with them.

Jenny Pelej, Montana Office of Tourism marketing chief, described the Sky’s the Limit Campaign during the second day of the 2016 Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Recreation in Kalispell. The three-day event has brought together more than 500 people to discuss how to lead people to the state.

Pelej said the campaign moved away from the typical brochure-style images with a slogan toward letting people describe their experience in Montana.

“This campaign is all about personal connection, connection with the environment, connection with others and connection with our magical state,” Pelej said.

Pelej said introducing the project to the Flathead Valley was tied to her personal story.

In 2012 Pelej had a dream home with her husband in Bigfork, gave birth to her son and worked a job she loved for a nonprofit. But in a matter of six months, she was a single mother and went from underemployed to unemployed.

Unable to find work in Montana, Pelej took a job out of state. She hoped to return to the place she was born.

“For two years I continuously looked for jobs but none were the right fit or were really feasible for a single mom to take,” Pelej said. “I was pretty dismayed that a lack of a job is what led me to leave and now this continual lack of a job was preventing me from coming back.”

After she was hired by the state in 2014, she focused on making sure others didn’t have to choose between Montana or an income by helping feed the state’s economy.

According to the Institute for Tourism and Economic Research, nonresident travel brought in more than $3.6 billion for Montana-based businesses in 2015 and supported 38,200 local jobs.

Raylee Honeycutt, marketing manager for the Montana Office of Tourism, said the Sky’s the Limit Campaign unrolled in March and focuses on short films.

She said the office released three videos highlighting Montana stories during the summer tourist season. Consumers are 41 percent more likely to transition from having an interest in a product to intending to use a product when it’s given in story format, she said.

“It is something that gives the personal component to the aspect of traveling to Montana,” Honeycutt said. More videos will be released each season.

Eduardo Garcia, founder and chef of Montana Mex, is one of the stories that will be told as part of the fall series. Honeycutt said stories such as Garcia’s, which outlines a love for Montana and exploration, tugs at people.

Garcia said during the conference he couldn’t forget his home state even as he worked as a personal chef on yachts and spent 11 years traveling the world.

Born and raised in Montana, Garcia’s first job was as a prep chef at Chico Hot Springs. After high school, he studied culinary arts at the Art Institute of Seattle.

“I’ve learned so much in this state, but I’ve definitely learned that sometimes you just need to step back, just go and do,” Garcia said. “But no matter how far away I got, I was always bringing Montana with me, like I needed the homing beacon.”

After working 20-hour days serving clients such as the princess of Bahrain and exploring places such as the Alps of France in his off-time, Garcia decided to go home and begin his own line of food.

Soon after Garcia returned to Montana, he was bow hunting in backcountry when he saw what looked like a dead bear. Using his left hand, he pulled out his knife to touch the remains. He had no way of knowing the bear was lying on a live power line source. When he touched it, he was charged with 2,400 volts of electricity and watched the sky become black.

He woke to the sound of the meadowlark, the state bird. Before he realized he was walking, he heard the sound of pebbles underneath his feet — like the path he walked outside his childhood home.

Garcia spent 48 days in intensive care and faced 21 surgeries. His left hand and forearm were amputated. He lost four ribs and several torso muscles. While in the hospital, Garcia was also diagnosed with Stage 2 testicular cancer.

The experience pushed him to make life in Montana possible. He learned to cook, fly fish and camp with a prosthetic hook. His business, which puts Mexican food without chemicals and preservatives on grocery shelves, has expanded nationwide.

“If you live in Montana, you need to work really hard to live here,” Garcia said. “You have to be gritty and you have to really fight to have this place. But it’s appropriate. It’s worth fighting for in my opinion.”

The rest of Monday’s presentations included breakout sessions such as how to package a downtown area as a tourist destination. The night wrapped up with a tourism awards banquet.

Final events today will kick off with a feature presentation on Yellowstone National Park and tourism throughout the state and end with a luncheon and wrap-up speech by Gov. Steve Bullock.

To check out the stories shared by the Montana Office of Tourism, visit http://www.visitmt.com.

Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at khoughton@dailyinterlake.com.

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