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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

The Magic City casts it’s spell

Mike Nelson seems exceptionally upbeat for a man in the middle of restoring a downtrodden hotel in downtown Billings, Mont.

Never mind that there’s only one working toilet in the whole place or that the hotel’s lone window air-conditioning unit, located in Nelson’s office, just gave out.

The Billings Mustangs have a new ballpark to play in.  Dehler Park opened downtown last year on the site of the old Cobb Field.  Minor-league baseball is a 60-year tradition in Billings, Mont.
Courtesy Billings CVB

The reopening of the old Northern Hotel is two years and a lot of work away, but Nelson remains enthused about what the future holds for his business and for Billings.

“If there was a better time to start a business in Billings, I can’t imagine it,” said the Billings native. “The city is about ready to launch.”

Magic City hits a magic number

The Magic City, so-named because of its explosive growth when the railroad arrived in the 1800s, still deserves its longtime nickname. The reprise of the Northern, a local landmark (See sidebar, p. 12), is just one example of why it does.

A quick look at Billings

Billings Convention
and Visitors Bureau
815 S. 27th St.
Billings, MT 59101
(406) 245-4111

What’s new: Billings’ major convention hotels have undergone renovations. The old Northern Hotel downtown is being restored. Downtown hotels and off-site venues have formed a partnership to bring more meetings downtown. Western Romance Co., which offers horseback rides and cowboy cookouts, has moved its base of operations within 12 minutes of downtown.
Rooms: 3,800 guest rooms; 750,000 square feet of meeting space, most at MetraPark. The multifacility complex is home to the Montana Fair and has served as the meeting site for the Family Motor Coach International Association and the Harley Owners Group National Rally.

Location: Billings is in south central Montana, 373 miles northwest of Rapid City, S.D.; 455 miles north of Cheyenne, Wyo.; 539 miles east of Spokane, Wash.; and 555 miles north of Denver, Colo.

Getting there: Billings/Logan International Airport offers direct flights to seven hub cities that include Denver, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Seattle. Interstates 90 and 94 intersect in Billings.

Little Bighorn Battlefield is within an hour of Billings, Mont.
Courtesy Billings CVB

The city continues to grow, though not quite as wildly as in its early years. Billings’ modern population has surpassed 100,000, the magic number when it comes to attracting some retailers and chains.

Cabela’s expects 1 million visitors

For example, Cabela’s, the outdoor megastore, opened an 80,000-square-foot store in Billings in mid-May and is expected to attract about 1 million visitors a year. Cabela’s arrival spurred other retail development, including a Sam’s Club under construction nearby.

Downtown is also seeing development. Work has begun on a new federal courthouse. Billings’ two downtown hotels have recently been renovated; on the city’s outskirts, its largest meeting hotel, the Holiday Inn Grand Montana, and its neighbor, the Billings Hotel and Convention Center, have done the same.

Baseball fans are cheering on the Billings Mustangs, a minor league affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, in a $13 million downtown stadium, opened in 2008.

And thanks to its multifaceted economy, Billings had an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent in May, higher only than rates in Bismarck, N.D.; Iowa City, Iowa; and Ames, Iowa.

“Although the recession is hitting everyone, including Billings, we seem to continue to weather those storms better than other places in the country,” said John Brewer, president of the Billings Chamber of Commerce and the Billings Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Billings’ advantage is this: It is the largest city for miles and miles and more miles. Thanks to the start that the railroad gave it long ago, it has become commerce central, drawing residents from a 500-mile radius.

The city is a center for not only shopping and entertainment, but also medical services, education and industry.
“People don’t associate Montana with industry and commerce,” said Brewer.

A gateway to Yellowstone, Little Bighorn

It’s also a tourism hub, the gateway to iconic Western attractions: Yellowstone National Park, 120 miles southwest; Pompey’s Pillar, about 25 miles east of Billings; and Little Bighorn Battlefield, less than an hour away. A new branding campaign, “Billings: Montana’s Trailhead,” will put even more emphasis on the virtues of its location.

Those who don’t know much about Montana’s largest city are likely to learn more in coming years.

A $1 per night fee on hotel rooms in the city has allowed the Billings CVB to va

Western Romance Co.’s business has doubled since the family-run operation moved its horseback rides and cowboy cookouts to a ranch within 12 minutes of Billings, Mont.
By Jonathan McNiven, Western Romance Co.

stly expand its marketing efforts. (Montana has no sales tax; Billings’ hotel room tax is 7 percent.)

The CVB’s sales team is traveling to more trade shows, bringing in more planners for site visits and providing more incentives to attract large groups.

“It puts us in a more competitive situation and allows us to increase our marketing efforts 300 to 400 percent,” Brewer said. “The bottom line for us is that these funds have increased our future bookings by 30 to 40 percent, and it is because we are out there more.”

There’s a move, led by downtown hoteliers, to bring larger conventions back to the city’s heart. The Downtown Conference Corridor (DCC) is a partnership of hotels and meeting venues within walking distance of one another in downtown.

Keeping conventions downtown is goal

“The corridor is all about keeping the business downtown,” said Chris Johnson, general manager of the Crowne Plaza Billings. “We were turning away groups to our competitors that we could house but that we didn’t have enough meeting space for unless we flipped the ballroom four or five times a day.”

Johnson and his peers realized that if the hotels and other venues worked together, they could handle larger groups. “Downtown, there are so many entities that can serve as a conference center,” said Johnson.

An 18-block area of downtown Billings, Mont., is being kept clean and safe through programs funded by downtown business owners.
Courtesy Billings CVB

Large groups can be housed at the 289-room Crowne Plaza and the 130-room Clocktower Best Western, across the street. Both have recently been upgraded.

“Our hotel just came off a $16 million renovation last September,” said Johnson. “Steve [Steve Wahrlich, general manager of the Clocktower] started renovating his property before I started to do mine.”

The Crowne Plaza was formerly a Sheraton. The hotel “really needed some capital dollars to bring it up to the current market standards,” said Johnson.

In addition to renovating guest rooms and meeting spaces, the hotel lobby was reworked using a great-room concept. A 20th-floor lounge was moved to the lobby, where it and a Starbucks outlet create energy and traffic. “There is always activity on the lobby level,” said Johnson.

The vacated 20th-floor space is now an event space, popular for its views of the surrounding valley and rimrocks, rock formations that form a boundary at the edge of the plateau that rings Billings.

With the addition of the 20th-floor venue, and three boardrooms and two breakout rooms added in former retail space, the Crowne Plaza has 15,000 square feet of meeting space.

The off-site venues that are part of the DCC are varied and include the Western Heritage Center, the Yellowstone Art Museum, the Historic Billings Depot, the Dehler Park baseball stadium and the Alberta Bair Theater.

The Yellowstone Art Museum is seeking more events business.
Courtesy Yellowstone Art Museum

With 1,400 seats, the theater is “the biggest space downtown, and probably the best for opening or closing sessions, or for a full-group-type presentation,” said William Wood, executive director of the Alberta Bair, which opened in 1930 as a Fox Theatre.

When the Gold Wing Touring Association comes to Billings next summer, it will use the theater and several other venues, including the ballpark and the Yellowstone Art Museum.

The motorcycle owners had previously opted for Billings’ largest event venue, MetraPark, with its 10,000-seat arena, expo center and pavilion.

Among the other downtown venues the group will use are the Yellowstone Art Museum and Dehler Park, where the Gold Wing group will tailgate and throw out the first pitch at a ballgame.

The ballpark replaces Cobb Field, the Mustangs’ home for 60 years.

New life for old Northern Hotel

Like others who hail from Billings, Mont., Mike Nelson has fond memories of the 1903 Northern Hotel. He got his first haircut in its basement barbershop; he and his wife announced their engagement to Nelson’s parents during dinner at the Golden Belle, the Northern’s restaurant.

Early this year, Nelson’s premonition that he would one day own the Northern came true when he and his brother bought the hotel, which had been closed several years.

“The Northern was the icon of downtown in its day,” said Nelson.

It’s been quite a homecoming for Nelson, who, with his family, returned to Billings a year ago after 27 years in the hotel business in Las Vegas.

Being local boys, the Nelsons have assembled a team of local talent to tackle the task of turning what Nelson describes as a “box-fan sort of hotel” into a first-class accommodation. (In the hotel’s declining years, guests received a box fan when they checked in at the front desk during the summer.)

Like the old Northern, the new one will have 160 rooms; they will range in size from 290 square feet to 500 square feet. About two-thirds of the 10,000 square feet of meeting space will be a ballroom. On the second floor, several “offices for a day,” designed for those who need meeting space for quick meetings, will be added. All will have 6-by-6-foot windows that overlook First and Broadway.

The hotel has been remodeled many times, so the design team has decided to gut much of it and salvage and restore as many original elements as possible.

“We think we need to start over and bring the place back to what it was when this was the place in town,” said Nelson.

“It was a nice old ballpark for baseball, and that was about it. It didn’t have a lot of versatility, the roof leaked,” said Brewer.

The new ballpark has all the modern accouterments, including a video screen used for a PowerPoint presentation during a chamber business lunch for 120.

The Yellowstone Art Museum is used by many organizations, among them Planned Parenthood, the Society of Female Accountants and the Billings Symphony.

A gallery devoted to Will James, a local artist whose art embodies the state’s Western spirit, is a popular venue.

“Events have been something the museum would like to pursue more of,” said development director Kim Sapone. “Every time we do a function, we get a wonderful letter.”

In addition to the new and renovated venues, downtown is cleaner and safer.

The city’s Purple People, who wear appropriately purple shirts, clean the 18-block area. They power wash park benches, empty and clean trash receptacles and also hand out maps, give directions and assist visitors.
A Billings police officer assigned to the district, walks and rides his bike in the area.

Like many Western railroad towns, downtown Billings has long been blasted by the blare of train whistles, but by August three downtown crossings will go quiet.

The crossings have been reconfigured to make it more difficult for pedestrians and cars to accidentally cross in front of a passing train, allowing the warning blasts of a train horn to be eliminated.

Holiday Inn is region’s largest hotel

Even with the advent of the DCC, most larger meetings migrate to two hotels near Interstate 90 on Billings’ edge.

The 317-room Holiday Inn Grand Montana claims to be the largest hotel in four states. Its 50,000 square feet of meeting space includes a 30,000-square-foot trade center.

Across a parking lot about 100 yards away, the Billings Hotel and Convention Center has 241 rooms and nearly 30,000 square feet of meeting space. The independent hotel spent about $5 million on improvements.

“Our fourth quarter is going to be better than last year,” said general manager Ron Spence.

The Holiday Inn has also been extensively renovated, and the resulting improvements convinced the Montana Telecommunications Association to keep its annual conference there.

“The year before the remodel, we had started looking around [for another site],” said planner Angela Joki. “Our vendors were saying, ’We don’t want to come back here.’”

The remodel has made all the difference. “It was a wonderful remodel of the convention center and the hotel, and it makes it easier for me to sell.”
The hotels’ proximity to the Rimrock Mall, Montana’s largest, dozens of limited-service hotels and retailers, like Cabela’s, also make them popular.

Despite all its modern changes, Billings’ local flavor is preserved in everything from downtown brew pubs and a historic house museum to covered wagon rides and cowboy cookouts.

The Moss Mansion, standing three stories tall and built of Lake Superior red sandstone, is opening up to more special events these days, according to Joyce Mayer, executive director of the Billings Historical Society.

For years, events other than the historic home’s own fundraisers were relegated to tents on its lawn. “We’d worked so hard to make things perfect [inside the house] that we didn’t want anyone wrecking it,” said Mayer.

Elaborate home inspires best manners

Private parties indoors are now welcomed. Mayer has found that the home’s opulence — it cost $105,000 to build in 1903 when the cost of the average house in Billings was $3,000 — keeps manners at their best.

A rich stew of architectural styles “is a little overwhelming,” said Mayer. “It is interest

Moss Mansion, home of Billings’ founding father, now permits indoor events.
Courtesy Billings CVB

ing. People come into the house and are on their best behavior. It is a little intimidating when you walk in.”

The home is a significant to Billings’ history. Designed by Henry Hardenbergh, architect of the Plaza Hotel in New York, for businessman Preston Boyd Moss, it probably is still the largest home in town, said Mayer. “It is important to our local history and culture in that it was built by one of our founding fathers.”

Because the house is on the National Register of Historic Places, it is not a place where anything goes, however. “We can’t change the house to fit your idea of a party, but your idea of the party can change to fit the house.”

Still, Mayer and her staff exhibit a good deal of enthusiasm and innovation by designing custom murder mysteries, an appropriate special event for a home that some in town describe as Billings’ “haunted house.”

“We had a security company in town for a statewide convention, and we did a murder mystery set at a sheriffs convention with a bad sheriff,” said Mayer.

Theatrics with an Old West theme are the specialty of the family-run Western Romance Co.

Dennis “Happy Pappy” McNiven, a cowboy whose grizzled beard and cowboy skills have earned him parts in movies such as  A River Runs Through It and , leads the operation.

A few years ago, McNiven’s son, Jonathan, realized that his family’s base of operations, 45 miles from Billings, was putting it out of reach for groups that came to town.

Western Romance has since leased a 480-acre ranch 12 minutes from downtown Billings. When motorcoaches pull up, covered wagons pick up guests for the short ride to the chuck wagon camp

Outdoor activities are within easy reach.
Courtesy Billings CVB

for a cowboy cookout.

Afterward, there’s a concert. “It might get a little interactive, with Pappy yodeling and reciting some cowboy poetry, and I might teach a few people to play the harmonica,” said Jonathan McNiven.

The cowboy cookouts are a big hit partly because of the authenticity.

“Pappy is a real cowboy, as authentic as you can get,” said McNiven.

The North Dakota Farmers Union made a Western Romance cowboy cookout a part of a recent mystery tour. Of 160 attendees, all but about 10 rated Western Romance the highlight of their trip, according to McNiven.

Now that the ranch is closer to the city, more groups are coming out for team-building horseback rides.

In a city where modern life might make visitors forget that the Old West still exists, Pappy McNiven is performing an important service for Billings and the meeting attendees who visit it, said Jonathan McNiven.

“What my dad does is what Billings needs.”