Wide-open spaces and natural treasures coupled with exceptional venues have long made Montana a sought-after destination for meetings and events. Now, in the throes of a pandemic, its allure is even more attractive for future meetings as planners contemplate how to get back to business in the safest way possible.
Outdoor event options, iconic national parks and recent renovations and openings in key cities Billings and Missoula put the state in a good position for group gatherings, especially for regional drive-in meetings.
If you’re considering Western gem for your next meeting, here are the venues and updates you can look forward to.
Known as “Montana’s trailhead,” Billings is popular, of course, for its proximity to Western treasures like Yellowstone National Park, Beartooth Highway and The Rimrocks. Being Montana’s largest city, it also has the right amenities for meetings, including over 300,000 square feet of meeting space, more than 4,000 hotel rooms and a variety of unique offsite venues. It’s only five minutes from the airport and has a walkable downtown district, which takes away any major transportation headaches from planners.
Billings lifted its 14-day quarantine for non-residents and opened up the Montana entrances to Yellowstone National Park. Executive director for Visit Billings, Alex Tyson, said that thanks to the combination of safety precautions the destination is taking, coupled with natural ways groups can easily practice social distancing, Billings is set up well for small meetings and incentives as business travel restarts.
“Especially in spring, fall and summertime during warmer season events, we are able to accommodate planners with so much outdoor space. Even our offsite venues from zoos to our museums and galleries have incredible outdoor space,” she noted. “Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Billings did smaller meetings of 400 attendees or fewer very well. I feel like we are still in that sweet spot now, especially if you want a room [with capacity] of 400 but only have 200 attendees, we are really shifting to accommodate that.”
Standout Venue: Alberta Bair Theater
Billing’s most impressive cultural landmark has been a staple in the community for nearly 80 years, opening its doors as the Fox Theatre in 1931.
Its iconic Art Deco design lends a natural wow factor to meetings and events, and as the largest fully equipped performing arts venue in the region, it provides visitors and locals alike with top-notch evening entertainment.
Photo: Rendering of renovated Alberta Bair Theater, Billings; Credit: Cushing Terrell
The theater has been closed since 2018 for a $13.6 million expansion and renovation and makes its grand reopening debut in fall 2020. And while Tyson acknowledges that Montana is known for its beautiful outdoor spaces and ranches, this updated venue—which is conveniently located in the heart of downtown—is a can’t-miss for visiting groups.
“It will have a capacity of 1,350 guests with reception space after renovations. It had limited reception space previously—your ability to go upstairs and look over downtown was limited. [These renovations] open things up, with glass windows facing the east and south part of that block,” she said. “It’s really a historic gem in Montana.”
Hugged by lush forests and mountains and situated on the banks of the Clark Ford River, Missoula beckons groups looking to get away from dense city buzz with its natural surroundings, growing hotel inventory and unique meeting spaces.
“Missoula really can play host to a variety of groups, from associations to conferences and corporate groups,” said Lauren Hillestad, a communications specialist for Destination Missoula. “With over 3,400 guest rooms and 170,000 square feet of meeting space spread throughout the city, groups that want fresh air, a beautiful backdrop and endless activities for their downtime flock to our mountain town.”
Hillestad said Missoula is also a popular destination for retreats, thanks to its unique small-space venues that allow groups to focus on productivity, and options to hit the river for white-water rafting or guided fishing trips on one of the three rivers that run through the Missoula Valley.
[Related: 6 Must-Do Teambuilding Activities in Marvelous Montana]
Larger conventions have a place in Missoula, too, thanks to state-of-the-art technology offered in larger meeting venues like on the University of Montana campus.
At publication time, Missoula was in Phase 2 of the state’s reopening, which allows the majority of restaurants, shops and attractions to reopen with safety precautions in place.
“In addition to our open restaurants and shops, Missoula is fortunate to offer seemingly endless opportunities for outdoor recreation on our wide open trails, rivers and more,” said Hillestad, explaining that Missoula’s location naturally allows for social distancing outside, like many of its counterpart Montana, Idaho and Wyoming destinations.
Standout Venue: Caras Park
Hillestad considers Caras Park, utilized in combination with A Carousel for Missoula, as one of the city’s most iconic event venues. Located steps from the Clark Fork River, this scenic outdoor venue is ideal for any group size and an attractive option for large-scale outside events.
The park offers a large pavilion area, restroom facilities, space for vendors and food trucks to set up shop on large grassy areas. The option to rent out the entire Carousel offers planners flexibility, as it can be rented in the summer, opened up when weather permits, or enclosed for winter events.
Photo: Brennan’s Wave near Caras Park, Missoula; Credit: Destination Missoula
Latest Openings and Renovations in Montana (2020)
Dirt is moving for the new Yellowstone Conference Center, which is set to debut in 2022. The new center will be adjacent to a new Marriott property, scheduled to break ground in the next 12 months. The conference center will be able to host up to 1,500 people.
The Residence Inn by Marriott, housed in the historic Mercantile Building in downtown Missoula, opened last year following a careful renovation. The Residence Inn offers suites built for extended stays, and even offered up many of those rooms for those in need of a workplace during Missoula’s stay-at-home orders. The hotel has two meeting rooms totaling 1,506 square feet of space and is connected to restaurants, shops and more in the Mercantile Building.
Photo: Lobby at Residence Inn by Marriott Downtown Missoula; Credit: Destination Missoula
Downtown Missoula has begun construction on two new properties: a new AC Marriott hotel conveniently located downtown, and Missoula’s first boutique hotel, The Wren, is under construction downtown.
A new entertainment offering, Centerfield Cinema, launched in Missoula this summer, offering weekly outdoor movie screenings on Thursdays at Ogren Park Allegiance Field. Groups can rent out large sections of the field and safely meet social distance guidelines.
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