Courtesy Great Falls Tourism
Published July 13, 2016
Big Sky Country is Montana’s moniker, and for good reason. Expansive skies unfurl over big mountains, big lakes and big game. Everything about Montana is huge — all its natural beauty and breathtaking panoramas — everything, that is, except its cities.
With 109,000 residents, Billings isn’t a massive metropolis, but it’s Montana’s largest city. Missoula comes in second with a population of about 70,000, followed by Great Falls at 60,000. But that’s a selling point for these rugged, independent, authentic communities where “you can be yourself, and everybody likes it,” said Rebecca Engum, executive director of Great Falls Montana Tourism.
Great Falls sits on the Missouri River with panoramic views of three mountain ranges — the Rocky, Highwood and Belt mountains. It’s a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, but it also offers “a nice mix of music, arts, culture, good food and just hardworking, honest people,” Engum said.
Great Falls has about 2,200 hotel rooms, with two major conference hotels, and officials expect that number to jump to roughly 2,500 rooms next year with some planned new hotels. The 231-room Best Western Plus Heritage Inn offers more than 17,000 square feet of function space, including a 9,900-square-foot convention area, and the 168-room Holiday Inn has a convention center with more than 5,000 square feet of meeting space. A Hilton Garden Inn and a Hampton Inn each offer meeting space as well.
The sprawling Montana ExpoPark sits on 133 acres on the banks of the Missouri and includes 18 buildings — many of them historic Art Deco structures — an arena, grandstands and three lawn areas. Although the park is home to the Montana State Fair, it is also used for Western Art Week and has hosted many meetings and events, Engum said. Groups often use the arena, the Exhibition Hall, the Heritage Building and the Fine Arts Building, and past events have broken out spaces using partition walls or drapes. Across the river from ExpoPark, a planned mixed-use development would include a new hotel along with bars, restaurants, shopping and offices.
In downtown, the Great Falls Civic Center houses the 15,300-square-foot Mansfield Convention Center, which can accommodate 800 for seated meals, and the 1,782-seat Mansfield Center for the Performing Arts.
The 25,000-square-foot Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center is available for events and has a 158-seat theater and an amphitheater. The building was designed to blend with the landscape, and its glass-windowed walls stair-step down the riverside bluff, so “you don’t see the majestic beauty of it until you get inside,” Engum said. Groups often use the C.M. Russell Museum for events; the Ozark Club housed at the History Museum is popular for speaker events and receptions.
The state’s largest city, Billings is a major economic center, especially when it comes to meetings and conferences. Billings has 5,000 sleeping rooms in about 55 hotels, six of which are convention properties, said Stefan Cattarin, Visit Billings sales manager.
Two of the city’s major convention hotels are changing brands and undergoing renovations. Late last year, a Florida-based hotel group bought the 35-year-old Holiday Inn Grand, converted it to a Radisson and launched a head-to-toe renovation that will wrap up in mid-2018. With 317 rooms and nearly 50,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, the Radisson is Billings’ largest meeting and convention hotel, so the project will have a major impact on the market.
In downtown, what was the Crowne Plaza Billings is converting to a DoubleTree. The hotel, with 289 sleeping rooms and 16,000 square feet of event space, is getting a full facelift with new furniture and finishes, and is scheduled to be done in September. Downtown also boasts the fully renovated historic Northern Hotel, Billings’ only four-star property, with 12,000 square feet of flexible meeting space and private dining for 30 at Ten restaurant.
The 236-room Billings Hotel and Convention Center has 26,000 square feet of meeting space and recently renovated its courtyard, which can fit roughly 600 for a reception and has two stages and a barbecue pit.
Downtown’s working brewery district includes six breweries and one distillery in a 1.5-mile loop, and Red Lodge Ales Brewing Co. will be the eighth establishment when it opens a hard-cider brewery next year. Locals are also working to raise money for a 15-passenger beer bicycle that passengers pedal as an onboard guide narrates the sights.
Zoo Montana opened its new 5,000-square-foot covered pavilion in July, and both the Yellowstone County Museum and the Western Heritage Center are available for events. Receptions for up to 150 people can use Yellowstone’s patio, which delivers “marvelous views of our city and all the way out to the Beartooth Mountains,” Cattarin said.
Nestled at the base of Whitefish Mountain, the 7,000-person city of Whitefish serves as the western gateway to Glacier National Park. The resort town is a year-round getaway with skiing in the winter and every imaginable type of outdoor activity the rest of the year.
The 86-room Firebrand Hotel is slated to open this month in Whitefish’s downtown, which is packed with bars, restaurants and galleries and is home to the Great Northern Brewing Co. The owners are hardly new to town; they also own the Lodge at Whitefish Lake. The Firebrand Hotel may act as overflow for events at the full-service Lodge, which has 8,000 square feet of meeting space including a 6,400-square-foot ballroom, according to Lisa Jones McClellan, spokeswoman for the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau. Although the Firebrand’s only function space will be a rooftop patio and a hospitality suite, groups will be able to use all the Lodge’s amenities, including the spa, the deck overlooking the lake and the pool with a rock waterfall.
A new Hampton Inn and Suites opened in April with 76 guest rooms and a small conference room, and Grouse Mountain Lodge is still fresh from its $3 million renovation in 2014 that included all 143 guest rooms and 11,000 square feet of meeting space.
Whitefish Mountain Resort is again expanding its function space. In addition to meeting rooms and private dining options at the Base Lodge, including 10,000 square feet on the entire third floor and patio, the resort is renovating the mountaintop Summit House. Last year, the project added a 1,600-square-foot mezzanine level with 135 seats and new windows with northwestern views. The second phase, which should be done this fall, will remodel the kitchen and food court. Groups can ride the ski lift to the Summit House for a meal, a meeting or a reception. The resort also has a zip-line course, an alpine slide, a treetop aerial obstacle course, and 30 miles of cross-country and downhill mountain bike trails.
Two new distilleries, Spotted Bear Spirits and Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits, have opened in the past six months, “both very different and both super cool,” and both available for group events and private parties, McClellan said. The city dining scene is also booming. Alpine Village Market is expanding to open a new restaurant and draft house, and Cuisine Machine, a local food truck and caterer, recently opened Last Chair Kitchen and Bar.
With nearly 70,000 residents, Missoula is the state’s second-largest city. The city has more than 3,400 sleeping rooms and nearly 170,000 square feet of meeting space, but because it doesn’t have an official convention center, “we kind of have to get creative here,” said Mary Holmes, director of sales and services for Destination Missoula. Events that fall into that “citywide feel” usually land at the University of Montana “because they do have beautiful space,” she said. Groups often use three venues that are close to each other on campus. The University Center’s conference space includes a 10,400-square-foot ballroom that can be halved, six flexible meeting rooms, a 300-capacity theater and a flora-filled atrium for receptions or vendors. The Adams Center has more than 14,000 square feet of floor space and can host trade shows or up to 7,500 people for concerts or presentations; the Payne Family Native American Center is ideal for breakout sessions and has a planetarium.
The 146-room Hilton Garden Inn is one of Missoula’s two convention hotels. The full-service hotel has 22,000 square feet of flexible function space as well as a casino, and is situated close to several other hotels that larger events sometimes use for overflow. The Holiday Inn Missoula Downtown has 200 guest rooms and 14,500 square feet of indoor space, with another 6,500 square feet at an outdoor park between the hotel and the Clark Fork River. The hotel’s new owners just launched a full renovation that will be done in stages through 2017 and could expand the interior meeting space.
In downtown, the MCT — home to both the Missoula Children’s Theatre and the Missoula Community Theatre — has 22,000 square feet of rentable space, including a 324-seat theater and several rooms, the largest of which can hold banquets for up to 200. The Barn at the Ranch Club sits on a golf course and can seat 160 for meals. With exposed beams and wrought-iron chandeliers, the facility has a rustic feel, and the Ranch Club recently started marketing the venue for corporate retreat and business events.