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We Travel There: Jim’s Best of Billings Interview

We Travel There Interviews CEO Jim Markel

We Travel There with Host Lee Huffman

This interview is available in Podcast format at the We Travel There website. We Travel There Podcasts help you travel like a local by interviewing guests from around the world. Uncover the hidden gems of their city. Find out the best things to do, places to eat and drink, and the most fun things to do from a local point of view.

In this episode Jim and Lee talked about the Burn the Point Car show, the gorgeous scenery along the Beartooth Highway, and the Montana State Fair. Learn about three amazing experiences you can enjoy visiting Billings, and so much more.


Lee Huffman: Hey Jim, welcome to the show.

Jim Markel: Thanks Lee, good to be here.

Lee: I met you a couple years ago at a conference called TBEX. Red Oxx had a table at the Billings convention center. I wanted to have you on the show to educate listeners about Billings, Montana.

Jim: Yes, it’s one of those cities that a lot of people don’t think about right out here in flyover country, so that’s a unique proposition. I’d say we have about 100 thousand some odd people. We’re 650 miles from every major city: Salt Lake, Denver, Minneapolis. It’s this interesting little hub of activity out here in the high plains.


Lee: So what’s your connection to Billings?

Jim: Well not much. After completing my service in the military I decided to come up here and go to school and start a business and a life. One place was as good as the next. Having grown up in a military family and never living anywhere more than about 18 months. The first connection I thought about when I first came here was "it was a step back in time, like it was 30 years in the past".

After living in California and all the big cities along the coast: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Idaho, I felt there was opportunity here. The pace of life was different. It was very interesting. Like almost going back in time.

Lee: I’m sure the city’s grown tremendously over the years that you’ve lived there. What’s kept you there over that time?


Jim: My business has kept me here. Then I’ve learned to embrace the four seasons. I never thought I would live away from the ocean, but the prairie has an allure all itself. It’s like a sea of grass. The weather here can be brutal, but it can also be beautiful. I’ve just learned to embrace the changes and go with it. Adapt my life to live. If it’s hot out, I’ve got flip flops and a tank top. If it’s cold out I got the best boots and cold weather gear money can buy. (Laughs)

Lee: It’s kinda like they say, you take the good with the bad and try to enjoy it all, right?

Jim: Yeah, of course I have a passport, so when it gets to be too bad I just get on an airplane to go somewhere.


Lee: What’s the weather like throughout the year? I know from looking at the news that sometimes it gets some negative numbers in the winter time. If someone’s going to plan on visiting, what time do you generally recommend?

Jim: If you’re a winter sports person come after Christmas. If your a summertime person come after July first because we get a lot of our moisture in June, so it can be rainy. I’ve even seen it snow in the middle of June. I always say it’s a safe bet if you come after the first of July, I can guarantee sunshine and warm weather and very long days.

We’re up north here. So the towards the peak on the equinox it’ll be 9:30 at night before the sun goes down. You can still see the after glow almost until 10:00. The sun comes up at 4:30 so you can have some really long days of adventure.

Lee: If you’re trying to maximize your vacation days that’s the one way to do it for sure.

Jim: Yeah, I get a little manic when it’s like that. I was up this morning at five. I’m not a morning person at all, but the sun’s up, I had some coffee, came to work. Kind of… have at it early.

It’s weird when winter comes on. You slow down a little bit. Of course the sun sets at four in the afternoon and doesn’t come up till ten. Those are the days we go to Red Lodge and we go skiing and snowboarding. I snowboard and my wife skis.

Lee: I’m a snowboarder myself. I’ve always been afraid of skis, that my legs are gonna go in opposite directions. It’s going to hurt!

Jim: Yeah, you gotta save your knees. (Laughs)


Lee: For sure. In anticipation of our conversation I went to Also at the Visitors Bureau there at Tbex I saw some really fun festivals. What are some of your favorites?

Magic City Blues Festival - Photo by Visit Billings
Magic City Blues Festival – Photo by Visit Billings.

Jim: The Strawberry Festival is a yearly occurrence. Magic City Blues Fest, a friend of mine promotes that. From my approach that’s some great music at the Blues Festival.

Also, there’s music around the region. There’s a Red Ants Pants Music Festival up in White Sulphur Springs which they hold in a cow pasture in the middle of nowhere. It’s kind of a destination festival. That one I believe sold out this year to over 13,000 people. That’s the biggie.

I think for the whole state we think nothing of driving all over here. We’ve got wide open roads and a high speed limit. Billings is such a good jumping off point for a lot of different things to do in Montana.


Lee: A couple ones I saw that were really interesting to me was Burn The Point. I guess it’s like a classic car show that happens every year?

Jim: Yeah that’s right. They do a street dance on a Friday night. I’ve gone to watch the cars. You can’t believe the number of cars, like hot rod cars, that people in this town have. We don’t have a rust problem like you do anywhere where the moisture and humidity is high, so there are magnificent examples of vintage vehicles.

Burn the Point Car Show - Photo by Visit Billings
Burn the Point Car Show – Photo by Visit Billings.


Lee: The Montana State Fair is there as well, correct?

Jim: Correct, that’s just a few blocks from here. I can look out my office window to the fairgrounds. One of my favorite things, of course, is all the 4H kids. They come from all over Montana. They live in some pretty remote locations, especially eastern Montana where these farms can be a "small" wheat farm. Here, an average wheat farm will be 10,000 acres. I know it’s hard for a lot of people wrap their head around. You know they have a couple kids there that’ll be raising cows or pigs and chickens. I really dig going down to check it out.

Lee: That’s so cool. It seems like there’s pride in raising those animals from babies. I like seeing that work and that kind of dedication over the long term.

Jim: Yeah, then they sell the animals. They’re able to raise money. These kids are really independent. They have checking accounts at ten years old. I think it’s a good thing – 4H. It’s good for their upbringing.

You don’t have to be a cowboy, but it certainly brings up the cowboys to that event. I would go and look at the equipment though I couldn’t tell you what any of that stuff does. It looks like a tractor, but it does so much more than just pull a plow.

Montana State Fair - Photo by Visit Billings
Montana State Fair – Photo by Visit Billings


Lee: Let’s take a step back. You talked earlier that Montana’s flyover country. A lot of people who are working like waving as we fly over. If you were gonna come to Billings, do we just fly into the airport there? What’s the best airport to fly into if you’re coming from where I used to live in Nashville, or where I now live in California?

Jim: We have direct flights from California into Billings now. And of course Bozeman. It’s about two hours away so it really depends. You’ll end up routing through Denver or Salt Lake or Minneapolis. That’s typically how you have to take that extra leg.

Although recently they’ve started having direct flights from Dallas which I thought was interesting. You can fly directly from Billings to Dallas and back. That’s a new flight. Billings is a good jumping off point because we have a big population base. A lot of rental cars are available here because of our population. You can rent SUVs and larger vehicles as well.

Lee: Do most of the airlines fly in there or is it just a handful?

Jim: I think it’s about six or seven airlines now. Sky West was the big one. We like flying with them. United… yeah, there’s quite a little hustle – bustle going on up there. I was picking up my cousin last weekend and there were four large planes landing right around midnight. Wow look at this? It’s like a big city time! There’s a bunch of delays going on. Other airlines haven’t quite spun up to their normal efficiencies so traveling can be a little challenging right now.


Lee: I remember the airport itself is really small. Once you arrive there, in order to get into downtown to get see some attractions and restaurants, do you rent a car or just take an Uber around? Because when I was there I just took an Uber. Is it better to rent a car?

Jim: If you’re just gonna do Billings you could get away with the Uber here and there, especially if you’re gonna stick to the downtown area. But it’s a rather sprawling town and it’s grown quite a bit in the last 25 years. I would say rent a car. The nice thing about when you arrive, let’s just say you got in late and you have a hotel booked, you could be in your hotel room after you got off the plane in 10 minutes.

The airport is up on the Rim Rocks up above the town. We’re down in a valley with the planes coming in to land. As they approach Billings they fly over the downtown and then the cliffs rise up about 4,500 feet. That approach is really cool. The pilots love it. At that airport they literally drop you off at the hill and then you’re right within a mile of downtown Billings. It’s really neat. I live down right below the airport, though you don’t hear the planes too much, but getting to the airport, and getting out of town, and arriving back is nice.


Lee: I remember once you got into the downtown area it is very easy to walk around. We did the