Check out the recent Big Sky DNA Report created by Destination Think! for Visit Big Sky as part of their five-year Tourism Master Plan at

Under the marketing microscope

A look at Big Sky’s community DNA
“What really stands out is the balance you have, the way you have access to wildlife and how you blend into nature. The challenge will be to translate that balance—skiing, biking, closeness to nature and Yellowstone, but also your growing, changing community.” —Frank Cuypers, senior strategic consultant with Destination Think!

Admittedly jet-lagged and remaining alert with the help of a Coke, Senior Strategic Consultant Frank Cuypers of the marketing company Destination Think! was in Big Sky Jan. 8 to discuss the results of the Big Sky Destination DNA study as part of Visit Big Sky’s Tourism Master Plan.

Between Nov. 20 and
Dec. 20, 2017, 266 Big Sky residents responded to the online survey, meeting the set quota. Many of the results were expected—Big Sky is defined by its access to outdoor activities, it is in a period of transition and its residents are markedly happy. In fact, when asked whether they were as a whole happy or unhappy, a whopping 95.5 percent of survey respondents said they were happy.

“Don’t take this for granted,” Cuypers said to the group of approximately 50 attendees at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center. “I’ve done a lot of research and I’ve never seen
 95 percent. Maybe 70/30 or 60/40.”

There’s always a critic—
one of the 266 survey takers considered Big Sky “ugly” when choosing between that response and “beautiful.”

As for our community DNA, Cuypers was not surprised to find that nearly half of respondents noted the “environment” as what makes Big Sky, Big Sky. However, its “society” garnered 35 percent of the votes, with “infrastructure” at just under 20 percent. 

“This means we’re rural here, you know that,” Cuypers said. “But surprisingly, you have more urban DNA as well, as you talk more about people.”

Another survey result surprised Cuypers, who has worked on marketing studies
for cities around the world—nearly 40 percent of respondents think Big Sky is becoming overcrowded. 

“People are not happy with the change of population,” he told the audience. “You can only promote what you develop and you can only develop what you promote. There’s a balance.”

Investigating outsiders’ perception of Big Sky, the Destination Think! team looked to social media posts and Tripadvisor to paint a picture. 

“We found lots of positive posts focused on outdoor activities, people seem impressed. This is good, it means you can deliver above expectations most of the time,” Cuypers said, continuing, “There are a lot of high-quality photos and videos, a lot are about people, which is a good sign for me.”

But it’s not all sunshine and butterflies. The study found that visitors are yearning for more information about Big Sky. 

“It’s because there is not one source recognizable as the spokesperson of Big Sky,” Cuypers said. 

Another issue discussed was the “shopping list” of activities Big Sky uses to promote itself—the skiing, hiking, biking opportunities pitched in existing marketing materials. 

“If I was reading this list, I would not consider coming to this place,” said Cuypers. “On one hand, they’re raving about it, but they can’t compare it to x, y, z. There is the ‘what,’ but there needs to be the ‘why.’ People know what Big Sky is, but they don’t know why to prefer it.”

To wrap up, Cuypers offered some advice. “What really stands out is the balance you have, the way you have access to wildlife and how you blend into nature. The challenge will be to translate that balance—skiing, biking, closeness to nature and Yellowstone, but also your growing, changing community.”

Following the presentation, several attendees posed questions to Cuypers and Visit Big Sky Director Candace Carr Strauss. One noted the disconnect between continued marketing of a community in the throes of a housing crisis, asking, “How do we keep the balance?”

Strauss responded, pointing out she’s also the director of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce. “The good news is we’re dealing with affordable housing, electrical substations and water issues,” she said. “These conversations are being held on parallel, so one isn’t mitigating the benefits of the other. We are working on it.”


Putting the data to good use 

On Jan. 9, the day after the community DNA presentation, Candace Carr Strauss and a group of invited community members at the frontlines of the tourism industry—Big Sky Resort General Manager Taylor Middleton, Big Sky Community Organization Director Ciara Wolfe—and others met with Destination Think! counselors for a day of dialogue on the continuing five-year, resort-tax-funded $45,000 tourism master plan.

“We wanted to make sure everyone had input,” said Strauss. “We can’t create a strategy in a vacuum.”

Strauss said the six-hour strategic session was an extremely productive conversation, and that using the information from the previous day’s presentation allowed them to identify gaps that need to be addressed. 

“Our biggest takeaway was how much the community needs to be involved in the conversation about tourism,” she said. “They need to be onboard and embrace it.”

While marketing was once all about numbers and bed counts, Strauss said the strategic session attendees agreed that’s not the case any longer. 

“We now need to understand the best types of tourists to attract,” she said. “It’s not about bringing more people, it’s about bringing the right people. They’re the ones that stay longer, enjoy it more, understand our place and want to return and protect it for future generations.” 

To view the full Big Sky DNA results, go to


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