Meet Norma Nickerson: Researching Tourism in the State of Montana

December 18, 2013

Meet Norma Nickerson, Ph.D., a research professor and the director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research (ITRR) in the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana. As director of ITRR, Norma is responsible for the annual estimation of nonresident visitation, expenditures, and economic impact to Montana as well as other tourism research niches for the state of Montana. She has authored three books, Snapshots: an Introduction to Tourism (2013); Quality Tourism Experiences (2006); and Foundations of Tourism (1995). Norma speaks throughout Montana as well as nationally and internationally about tourism and has served on the international board of the Travel and Tourism Research Association. 

Adventure Cycling partnered with the ITRR to learn more about the impacts of cycling and bicycle travel in Montana. Access to data will help tourism, policy makers, community and statewide leaders, business leaders, and land managers better understand the economic impacts of bicycle tourism and the best ways to attract bicycle travelers to Montana. We interviewed Norma about ITRR and Norma’s recent survey project which focuses on bicycle touring.

How was ITRR established and why?

ITRR was established as a research program, meaning that one entity would compile and keep all tourism-related research in one spot. Trends and data could easily be gathered and assessed and the institutional wisdom of tourism and recreation in Montana would always be available to the public.

By developing a research program that continually updates information, collects primary data for analysis, and provides reports to the tourism industry and other decision makers (e.g. policy makers, community and statewide leaders, business leaders, and land managers), the issues and challenges of the industry are always at the forefront of decisions. This Business Intelligence (BI) model provides data that is concrete, reducing the need to guess as to what is going on, how much visitors spend, and who the state markets are. Because the ITRR is a program of research, it allows for continuity in data as well as a place to find information. Most states in the U.S. do not have a research program like ITRR. They rely on outside consultants to conduct periodic research for them and hence, no continuity and no access to the data beyond the written report. The ability for others to understand trends, to look into the future, and know for certain their markets, is not available to them. In essence, this tourism and recreation BI program takes most of the guessing out of promotion, development, and planning. Because of BI, the tourism industry is armed with valid and reliable information to take to the state legislature and the governor when laws are being instituted.

Tell us about how ITRR conducts their research?

The methods we use to conduct our research depend on the questions asked. With that said, in the past year we have probably used almost all methods available! Throughout the years we've had 10 employees intercepting nonresidents and residents at gas stations, rest areas, and airports. We find out why nonresidents are visiting Montana and their trip characteristics. Residents are asked anything from their recreation activities to their attitude towards tourism. These same employees observe license plates on cars as they enter the state to help us determine the proportion of vehicles from out of state which we then input into our visitation model. Recently we did a study on the Beartooth highway and actually stopped cars, motorcyclists and bicyclists to assess the travel characteristics. ITRR has a research panel that allows us to conduct on-line surveys of people who have been to Montana or are thinking of coming to Montana. We do other on-line surveys of special or niche markets when email addresses are available to us. We have conducted in-depth interviews of visitors to get a better understanding of their trip in Montana. Finally, we use secondary data from businesses, land managers, or others to establish trends in tourism and recreation as it relates to Montana. The one method we have yet to use is in a laboratory. Our subjects are not mice so we go out in the field instead of in a lab!

What do you think is the most important aspect of having a university conduct this research for the Office of Tourism?

Because the ITRR is a separate entity from the Office of Tourism, we are objective about the research and the results found from research. That makes our data and information more likely to be viewed as a valid and reliable source and therefore trustworthy.

Have there been any surprises in your research?

I have been doing this for so long, that it’s hard to surprise me! But, yes, I can be surprised. For instance, when we conducted the study on the Beartooth Highway, we thought the road was mainly used as a route to Yellowstone National Park. What we found out is that it is actually its own destination. People travel and recreate on the road for its scenic beauty and recreation along the way. Yes, some do go to Yellowstone as well, but it’s not the primary reason for using the road.

What have you found out about bicycling in the state of Montana?

We are currently analyzing data about multi-day cycling in Montana (thanks to Adventure Cycling for helping us out)! That final report should be out by the end of December and will be the most comprehensive and enlightening research we have ever conducted on cycling in Montana. However, extracted data from our nonresident survey shows that cycling has a unique and important place in Montana’s tourism industry. For instance we found:

  • The number of nonresident visitors road/tour biking while in Montana in 2012 was around 565,372
  • Nonresident road/tour bikers length of stay in Montana was 6.66 nights
  • Nonresident road/tour bikers spend $1,009.72 per trip in Montana, which is about $151.61 a day

What existing or future trends are you seeing for bicycle tourism based upon your research?

I’m not sure I can say anything based on our research since we haven’t studied cycling until recently. However, looking at trends in states like Oregon, Wisconsin, and Iowa, I would say that bicycle tourism will continue to grow and the infrastructure needed to make sure cyclists are safe along our highways is receiving more attention. Additionally, the baby boom population is an active group who hasn’t shied away from physical activity. Finally, I would think the number of members of Adventure Cycling Association shows a trend to increased interest in cycling for, or during, vacations!

Thanks Norma! We look forward to posting the report when it’s released. In the meantime, to learn more about bicycle tourism’s economic impacts in Montana, take a look at the ITRR’s 2012 summary and analysis(PDF) of data from nonresident surveys of visitors who participated in road/tour biking while on a trip in Montana.

Adventure Cycling’s website also provides a number of economic studies from across the country.

Top photo courtesy of Norma Nickerson | Bottom photos courtesy of Adventure Cycling Association

BUILDING THE U.S. BICYCLE ROUTE SYSTEM is posted by Ginny Sullivan and Saara Snow of the Travel Initiatives Department and focuses on news related to the emerging  U.S. Bicycle Route System (USBRS). The USBRS project is a collaborative effort, spearheaded by a task force under the auspices of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Members of the task force include officials and staff from state DOTs, the Federal Highway Administration, and nonprofits like the East Coast Greenway Alliance and Mississippi River Trail, Inc.


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