Visit Billings Hosts Travel Bloggers In Effort To Boost Tourism
Correction: A previous version of this story stated out-of-state travelers spent $3 billion in Montana in 2018. Out of state travelers spent $3.7 billion last year.
A tourism agency in Billings is figuring out a new type of currency: One made of clicks, likes and shares.
The Travel Bloggers Exchange, or TBEX, is an annual conference for bloggers, videographers and pocasters. They hold events all over the world to help content creators network, improve their craft and build their social media savvy.
Last week, they spent a few days in Billings.
The conference attracted people like Erika Eckstrom, who owns a horse stable in New York and writes about traveling with horses.
“It’s like a Western adventure, so yeah, it’s a perfect fit," Eckstrom said.
The conference also caught the interest of Tianna Gratta, who writes a blog called The Passport Chronicles.
“I came here to eat mostly," she says.
Billings organizers are hoping these bloggers and at least some of the 500 plus other attendees will create content about Billings.
City- and state-funded tourism organization Visit Billings dedicated a full team of staff members and a year to organizing the conference.
Ali Murnion with Visit Billings says they want to draw people to the city and they’re doing that partly by touting Billings’ access to everything around it.
“I think when we talk about Billings as a brand and how we market ourselves as a brand, we talk about that we’re Montana’s trailhead. Right? So, we’re this nice center of the state, we have accessibility through the airport, through the interstate, so we’re a really, really great place to start your Montana adventure,” Murnion says.
Out-of-state travelers spent about $3.7 billion in Montana last year, according to a spokeperson for the Montana Department of Commerce. Yellowstone County raked in about 7 percent of that, or $270 million, as detailed in a report by the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research.
It’s not cheap to host the TBEX conference at $12,500, but Murnion with Visit Billings is banking on the content and social media clout that comes with an extended visit by hundreds of content creators.
A whole slew of other travel and adventure organizations, like KOA and state travel company Visit Montana, also paid for booths at the conference. Murnion says her organization tried to appeal to sponsors by projecting the potential benefit for the state’s tourism industry.
“We started doing the number crunching on what would it cost for me to get the top six influencers and bloggers of this conference back to Billings because many bloggers and influencers do actually charge a creative fee before they’ll ever visit a destination," she says.
The internet version of word-of-mouth is the kind businesses can now pay for and sponsor.
Norma Nickerson, director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, has been studying tourism for more than 25 years and says that’s the current state of advertising.
“It used to be you had a print ad in a magazine," Nickerson says. "I mean, that was it. Sometimes, you’d put billboards up, sometimes you’d put an ad on TV. You don’t see that as much.”
Nowadays, companies and brands send samples to bloggers, YouTubers and other content creators to review or mention their product. Or influencers go to a business, enjoy the service for free and post about it.
Last year, a hotel owner in Dublin went viral for calling out an influencer who asked for a free stay in exchange for a plug in their YouTube and Instagram accounts.
Nickerson says followers can’t always tell what content is sponsored and what is authentic.
“The trick is, from the consumer point of view, is how accurate is it? But then, advertising - they don’t worry about that. This is what we offer and they’re gonna tell you what they want you to hear," she says.
When it comes to the TBEX conference, it’s no sure thing that bloggers will actually create content around the host city. The attendees are paying to be there, somewhere between $300 and $700 depending on the package.
But TBEX organizer Rick Calvert believes that also makes the content more valuable.
“That message is a real, authentic message of somebody’s perspective, and it’s not a sales message from the tourist board, so it just carries more weight with somebody who might visit there someday," Calvert says.
Murnion with Visit Billings admits it may be difficult to show how the conference pays off.
“This is the golden question," she says. "Do social media hits and social media engagements actually directly benefit people coming here? We believe strongly it does. But the conversion rate and proving that is a very difficult thing to do.”
They’re hoping the conference will lead to Billings-themed posts that may increase the traffic to the area.
Next year, TBEX will be held in Catania, Sicily.