Tourism leaders in Colorado Springs are optimistic that visitors will return to the Pikes Peak area in near-record numbers as the two-year-old COVID-19 pandemic fades.
Officials believe Americans are ready for vacations after two years of trying to avoid infection, and they are spending heavily to bring these visitors to the region. Visit Colorado Springs, the region’s main tourism promotion agency, has doubled its marketing budget to $3.7 million, including a special campaign targeting visitors from six major cities, while the Pikes Peak Country Attraction Association, a trade group for the region’s tourism destinations, hosts a range of Travel book next month.
“We’re hoping for a record year,” said Doug Price, CEO of Visit Colorado Springs. “While gas prices are certainly a wild card and will continue to be, I’m optimistic that pent-up demand (for travel) will be very strong.”
“While group travel and business alike are two years into a full recovery, leisure travel is filling in the gaps. We are not fully back to pre-COVID levels, but hotel occupancy is only a few percentage points lower than in 2019.”
Both agencies are using federal funds from the federal stimulus of last year’s U.S. Bailout Act to boost marketing efforts. Visit Colorado Springs spends nearly $1 million marketing in five cities with non-stop airline service—Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and Phoenix—plus Washington, DC, and is a major source of local visitors.
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While the outlook for the 2022 Colorado tourism season looks stronger than last year, especially for West Slope and resort towns, industry officials are holding their breath because inflation is not getting worse and any new outbreak of COVID is more manageable.
“We’re expecting a busy summer,” said Tim Wolf, director of the Colorado Tourism Bureau.
The legislature approved a $20.3 million budget for the Colorado Tourism Bureau in the fiscal year beginning July 1, to return funding levels to pre-pandemic levels.
Price said the Colorado Springs visit hopes that the advertising campaign in six cities will boost nonstop flights operated by all five major carriers serving Colorado Springs, and perhaps persuade one of them to add a nonstop flight to Washington. The ads, which began May 1 and are set to run through November 15, will complement the rest of the agency’s marketing efforts, and another $2.7 million in advertising and marketing comes from local hotels and other tour operators and a city tax on hotel rooms and car rentals.
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The attraction group is spending $164,000 to host 27 members of the Society of American Travel Writers June 5-9, including participants from Colorado, California and Canada, said B.K. McPherson, the group’s executive director. It expects the conference to pay dividends in the coming months and years from stories and blog posts generated from event participants that in the past years have generated up to 500 million web page views.
Visitor numbers at Pikes Peak area attractions have been increasing since February with record attendance in March, especially from travelers from the east and west coasts, Macpherson said. With gas prices and airline tickets soaring to record levels in recent weeks, expect the mix of visitors to shift to those from neighboring states, including Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, which usually attract many visitors to the area.
“Although gas sells for more than $4 a gallon, we are seeing strong activity on our website and a lot of our attractions are reporting their best March ever,” MacPherson said. “I would expect travelers to stay closer to home, which likely means a larger percentage of in-state visitors,” a trend that gained traction in the early months of the pandemic and has continued over the past two years.
Price said he hopes that some special events, including on June 24, inviting new members to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame at the Olympic and Paralympic Museum in downtown Colorado Springs, will be a big draw for visitors. He also feels that the recently reopened Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs will attract more visitors.
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Tourism figures for 2021 statewide aren’t available yet, but it’s sure to be better than the dismal year of 2020. Statewide travel spending fell 36% that year to $15.4 billion from $24.2 billion in 2019. It has attracted Colorado had a record 86.9 million visitors in 2019, but visitor numbers fell by about 13 million in 2020, according to the state tourism office.
Richard Scharf, President and CEO of Visit Denver, said the return of European travelers and an increase in business and conference business trips should help increase visitor numbers this year.
“The return of the front range is certainly slower because of the business travel market and groups,” said Scharf, which has been slow to recover. “But after the first two months of the year dealing with the omicron effect, we’re seeing some massive demand right now.”
“It is this pure tradition and transient (travel) work that fills those 12,000 rooms in downtown Denver,” said Wolf. “If you don’t have it, you only have the leisure traveler. And they don’t come to Denver as much as they come to the mountains for leisure.”
The bright spot this year will be the return of European travelers, Scharf said.
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“We can already achieve 20% growth there, compared to 2019,” Scharf said. “Think of all the airlines that have resumed international flights.”
Wolf said that international travelers can spend up to five times what domestic or even national tourists do.
“International tourists spent $1.8 billion in 2019, and that amount dropped to $360,000 in 2020,” Wolf said. “They are the most valuable tourists in terms of our spending. … They have spent more than $2000 per person on their accommodation. The small car market is spending much less.”
Mountain tourism officials agreed that 2021 was a strong year, despite pandemic restrictions, and 2022 is likely to be a strong year for the industry as well.
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“We are expecting a strong summer in 2022,” said Blair McGarry, CEO of The Summit Chamber (Summit County). “Accommodation rents in Breckenridge are up 20% and there is about a 6% increase in units available. People have been coming in for the past couple of years, and we are expecting another really strong summer season.”
Tourist visits to Glenwood Springs are so strong that the city doesn’t even market summer tourism.
“We’re really stepping things up for the summer because we’re so busy,” said Lisa Langer, Director of Tourism for Visit Glenwood Springs. “Our primary media buys are for our shoulder season—fall, winter, and spring.”
Many cities and regions are very busy during the height of the summer season, and the Colorado Bureau of Tourism helps them manage visitors in a way that prevents environmental damage.
The office launched a “Do Colorado Right” marketing campaign focusing on sustainable tourism.
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“We’re talking about helping them send messages about sustainability practices…and making sure we don’t lose sight of the seasons they still really want to have that kind of visit,” Wolf said.
The bureau gives about $2 million annually to “destination management organizations” in these cities to help them get this message across.
“We’re really trying to educate tourists on how to avoid loving these places to death,” McGarry said. “Of course, we want to embrace the upcoming tourism, but make sure these places will last for future generations as well.”
Popular destinations in Summit County include the Breckenridge Ski Area, Lake Dillion, and Arapahoe Basin, which offer a ropes course in summer and a Ferrata Climbing adventure on the mountain’s east wall.
Besides this premise of sustainability, tourists will be required to make a reservation for some of the popular tourist sites for the first time and pay for the parking spaces that were free.
Officials are promoting a “know before you go” approach.
“We implemented the Quandary Peak shuttle system last year, where people park and drive down the airport road,” McGarry said. “It’s a minimum fee of $6 for locals, or $15 for others. It’s just been flooding heads in the last two to three years.”
She also urged visitors to try to visit during off-peak hours, either early in the morning or later in the afternoon.
“If you get there at 6 a.m., you will probably find a place to park,” she said. “We’ve also warned people about how Silverthorne is being propped up at I-70 Exit 205 every Sunday between 1 and 5 p.m. It’s worse in the summer because of the camper vans and trucks pulling campers.”
Summit and Glenwood Springs officials each had another message for visitors: Be kind.
The labor shortage that grew sharply during the pandemic years persists, with many companies short of 25% of the staff they need.
“Just be nice and relax,” Langer said.
“Be nice to the frontline workers,” McGarry said. “They are doing their best, but you will run into waits and delays.”