Dinosaur Trail Links Sites in Eastern and Central Montana

Strategy: Balance Your Budget, Collaborate in New Ways

Type of attraction: Heritage Area/Scenic Byway/Heritage Trail, Museum/Historic Site, Tourism Organization

Summary: In 2005, 10 funding partners including four tourism regions, two chambers of commerce, the federal Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Montana State Parks and the Montana Office of Tourism joined forces with 13 non-profits.

In 2005, 10 funding partners including four tourism regions, two chambers of commerce, the federal Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Montana State Parks and the Montana Office of Tourism joined forces with 13 non-profit museums, interpretive centers and field stations with unique “world class” paleontology displays and programs to create the “Montana Dinosaur Trail.” Criteria for “trail” participation included paleontology being a prominent part of the facility’s exhibits and/or programming and a willingness to cross promote all trail facilities as well as other community businesses and attractions.  A trail brochure and website (www.mtdinotrail.org) were created along with facility signage, a paleo-education/exhibit mentoring program and group merchandising opportunities.  In 2007, the trail membership and funders grew to 25 with the addition of two more “paleo” museums and all 15 trail facilities contributing funding for the project’s marketing tools. 

Between the trail’s “Grand Opening” in 2005 and 2007, visitation grew by 40%.  Taking out visitation to the trail’s largest facility, Bozeman’s Museum of the Rockies, which often features “non-paleo” national traveling exhibits (i.e., King Tut, Picasso, Leonardo DaVinci, Jamestown) the trail’s more rural 14 facilities saw 14% more visitors in the first two years of this promotion.

“The increased visitation along with the great response and growing recognition of the Montana Dinosaur Trail since its beginning has confirmed the incentive each member had for joining and promoting the trail network,” says Victor Bjornberg, Montana Office of Tourism program manager who assisted in the trail development. “The facility partners have seen that working together to promote all of their communities and their authentic, locally found dinosaur displays is more effective than each facility trying to go it alone, particularly since many of these communities are a long way from everywhere.” 

In mid 2006, just prior to the economic downturn, the 15 trail facilities created the Montana Prehistoric Passport, a passport-size booklet highlighting the dinosaurs featured at each facility, unique facts about the species or Montana’s geologic formations where they were found, a space for field notes and each facility’s unique dinosaur icon stamp to verify the holder’s visit. As an incentive for visitors to go to all the trail facilities, a passport holder who collects all 15 icon stamps is rewarded with a Montana Dinosaur Trail t-shirt and a gold-labeled certificate of achievement. “This idea and its implementation was created and completed solely by the trail members and their communities, a great sign of growth and understanding of what this cooperative trail project is all about,” says the Montana Office of Tourism’s Bjornberg. The initial 2,500 passport print run was financed by ad sales to trail community businesses. Each facility or other interested businesses purchase the passport for $2.50 and $3, respectively, and sell them for $5, the profit staying with the selling entity.

With the self-sustaining passport as an additional promotional tool and revenue source, the trail’s facilities have been able to weather the economic downturn fairly well, at least in regard to visitation. From 2007 to 2009, the 14 rural facilities increased their visitor numbers by 8%. Comparing 2008 visitation with 2009, visitor numbers grew 12%. Each facility is reporting more visitors with passports who are planning to complete the 1,300 mile trail, if not in one year, then in subsequent visits.

Another example of cooperation coming out of the trail project is that a third of the facilities are sharing professional paleontology services to assist with area field digs in which visitors participate for a fee.

“Sharing resources like this allows all the facilities to gain from the strength of a particular trail member, offer a great visitor experience, and fulfills the cross-marketing criteria, a key element of the trail idea,” adds Bjornberg.  For 2010, the Montana Dinosaur Trail facilities added a staff training program conducted by a two trail facility volunteers and began collectively sharing information through social media sites. Living up to the trail slogan, “150 million years in the making, ready for you today,” the Montana Dinosaur Trail is looking for continued visitor growth and enjoyment as the economy improves.