BILLINGS — The Billings Depot is one of the city’s most recognizable event locations. But imagine you’re not from Billings, or even Montana. You want to hold an event in the city but don’t know what any venues look like. The Depot’s new virtual reality tour is the answer.
“You can look at photos of the Depot online, but they’re kind of flat,” said Depot executive director Michelle Williams. “This really gave us the opportunity to put someone in the Depot, completely immersed in the space.”
Once I adjusted the Oculus goggles to fit my larger than average head, I found myself in the Depot passenger station with options to be able to see what different events would look like. You can view wedding or business reception layouts.
I then moved back through to the bigger baggage room – the typical reception space – where I could view more layouts for various events and celebrations.
“I’m thinking of having 300 people here,” Williams posed as a question. “What can I do? Where’s the stage? How about a dance floor? This gives us all the flexibility we need.”
Anyone in the world with an Oculus headset can now put themselves in the Depot. It gives the venue a much bigger audience, specifically for groups that can’t send someone for a site visit, and viewers are not confined to just these walls.
“It was important not to include just the inside, but also to showcase historic Montana Avenue,” Williams said. “The walkability, the breweries that are around, the nearby businesses.”
“It really does help us with our overall visitor tool kit,” said Alex Tyson, executive director of Visit Billings.
Tyson is pitching that tool kit every week in Billings at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Recreation. While attendees are happy to put the pandemic behind them, the Treasure State did well during COVID-19, bringing in $3.14 billion from out-of-staters in 2020.
“In Billings, that’s 2.1 million visitors with over $621 million in economic impact,” Tyson said.
But not everyone is excited about the money. 56 percent of Montana residents say the state is becoming too overcrowded, according to the Institute for Tourism and Recreation’s 2021 survey. It’s the first time in the survey’s 30-year history the number has been over 50.
“The emails, the phone calls, the text messages about over visitation and overcrowding, about what’s being done to combat that,” Tyson said. “You really don’t have those conversations in Yellowstone County.”
In fact, Yellowstone County had the highest rate of residents – 88 percent – who appreciated the economic benefits tourism brings.
“We are ready for larger groups,” Tyson said. “Look at MetraPark. Look at all the hotels we have. That really positions Billings well for sports events growth, leisure growth, meetings/conventions growth.”
Growth you can see through a number of lenses.