Colorado Springs tourism leaders are optimism that visitors will return to the Pikes Peak region in near record numbers as the 2-year-old COVID-19 pandemic fades from view.
Officials believe travelers nationwide are ready to take vacations after two years of trying to avoid infection, and they are spending heavily to bring those visitors to the region. Visit Colorado Springs, the region’s primary 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 Attractions Association, a trade group for the region’s tourism venues, is hosting a group of travel writers next month.
“We are hoping for a record year. While gas prices are certainly a wild card and will remain so, I am bullish that the pent-up demand (for travel) will be very strong,” Visit Colorado Springs CEO Doug Price said. “While both group and business travel are probably two years from a full recovery, leisure travel is filling the gaps. We are not quite back to pre-COVID levels, but hotel occupancy is down only a few percentage points from 2019.”
Both agencies are using federal funds from last year’s American Rescue Plan Act federal stimulus legislation to boost marketing efforts. Visit Colorado Springs is spending nearly $1 million on marketing in five cities with nonstop airline service — Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston and Phoenix — as well as Washington, DC, a major source of local visitors. The attractions association is hosting a four-day conference of free-lance writers from the Society of American Travel Writers.
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While the outlook for Colorado’s 2022 tourism season looks stronger than last year, especially for the Western Slope and resort towns, industry officials are holding their breath inflation doesn’t keep getting worse and any new COVID outbreaks are more manageable.
“We anticipate a busy summer,” said Tim Wolfe, director of the Colorado Tourism Office.
The Colorado Legislature approved a $20.3 million budget for the Colorado Tourism Office in the fiscal year beginning July 1, restoring funding levels to pre-pandemic levels.
Visit Colorado Springs hopes the six-city advertising blitz will boost nonstop flights operated by all five the major carriers serving Colorado Springs and perhaps convince one of them to add a nonstop flight to Washington, Price said. The ads, which began May 1 and scheduled through Nov. 15, will supplement the rest of the agency’s marketing efforts, another $2.7 million in advertising and marketing that comes from local hotels and other tourism businesses and the city’s tax on hotel rooms and rental cars.
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The attractions group is spending $164,000 to host 27 members of the freelance council of the travel writers group from June 5 to 9, including participants from Colorado, California and Canada, said PK McPherson, the group’s executive director. She expects the conference to pay dividends in coming months and years from stories and blog posts generated from event participants that in past years have generated up to 500 million internet page views.
Visitor numbers at Pikes Peak region attractions have been growing since February with record attendance in March, especially from travelers arriving from the East and West coasts, McPherson said. As gas prices and air fares have surged to record levels in recent weeks, she expects the mix of visitors to shift to those arriving from adjacent states, including Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, that typically generates many of the region’s visitors.
“Despite gas selling for more than $4 a gallon, we are seeing strong activity on our website, and a lot of our attractions reporting their best March ever,” McPherson said. “I expect travelers will stay closer to home, which likely means a greater percentage of in-state visitors,” a trend that gained traction in the early months of the pandemic and has continued for most of the past two years.
Price said he hopes a few special events, including the June 24 induction of new members to the US Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame at the US Olympic & Paralympic Museum in downtown Colorado Springs, will be a big visitor draw. He also is especially encouraging the recent reopening of the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs will attract more visitors, since they can visit the center and museum in one trip for the first time.
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The 2021 statewide numbers aren’t available yet, but are sure to be better than dismal year the pandemic wrought in 2020. Travel spending statewide dropped 36% in 2020 to $15.4 billion from a record $24.2 billion in 2019 . Colorado drew a record 86.9 million visitors in 2019, but visit numbers plunged by almost 13 million in 2020, according to the state tourism office.
The return of European travelers and increasing business travel and convention business should help boost visitor numbers this year, said Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver.
“The Front Range is definitely slower to come back because of the business travel market and groups,” which have been slower to recover, said Scharf. “But after the first couple months of the year dealing with the Omicron impact, we’re seeing some tremendous demand right now.”
“That pure convention and transient business (travel) is what fills those 12,000 rooms in downtown Denver,” said Wolfe. “If you don’t have that, then you only have the leisure traveler. And they’re not coming to Denver as much as they are the mountains for leisure.”
Scharf said a bright spot this year will be the return of European travelers.
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“We could actually grow 20% there, as compared to 2019,” said Scharf. “Think about all the airlines who have resumed international flights.”
International travelers can spend up to five times more than local or even national tourists, Wolfe said.
“International tourists spent $1.8 billion in 2019, and that dropped to like $360,000 in 2020,” said Wolfe. “They are the highest-value spending tourists that we have. … They spend over $2,000 per person on their stay. The drive-in market spends a lot less.”
Mountain tourism officials agreed that 2021 was a robust year for tourism, despite pandemic restrictions, and that 2022 will likely be a strong year for the industry as well.
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“We’re anticipating a strong summer in 2022,” said Blair McGary, executive director of The Summit Chamber (Summit County). “Lodging rentals in Breckenridge are up 20% and there’s about a 6% increase in available units. People have been coming for the past two years and we’re anticipating another really strong summer season.”
Tourist visits to Glenwood Springs are so strong, the city doesn’t even market summer tourism.
“We really ratchet things down 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 seasons — fall, winter and spring.”
Many Colorado cities and region are so busy during the peak summer season, the Colorado Tourism Office is helping them manage visitors in a way that prevents environmental damage.
The office has launched a “Do Colorado Right” marketing campaign that focuses on sustainable tourism.
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“We’re talking about helping them message sustainability practices.. and making sure that we don’t lose sight of the seasons that they actually still want that type of visitation,” said Wolfe.
The office grants about $2 million annually to “destination management organizations” in these towns to help them deliver that message.
“We’re really trying to educate tourists on how we can avoid loving these places to death,” said McGary. “Of course we want to embrace the tourism that’s coming, but make sure these places will last for future generations too.”
Popular Summit County destinations include Breckenridge, Lake Dillion and Arapahoe Basin ski area, which offers a ropes course in the summer and the Ferrata Climbing Adventure on the mountain’s East Wall.
Along that vein of sustainability, tourists will be required to make reservations for some popular tourist spots for the first time and pay for parking areas that had been free.
Officials are touting a “know before you go” approach.
“We implemented the Quandary Peak shuttle system last year, where folks park and pay at Airport Road,” said McGary. “It’s a minimal fee of $6 for locals, or $15 for others. The trail heads have just been inundated the last two-to-three years.”
She also urged visitors to try and visit during off peak hours, either earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon.
“If you get there at 6 am, you’re probably going to find a parking spot,” she said. “We also have been warning folks of how Silverthorne backs up at I-70 exit 205 every Sunday between 1 and 5 p.m. It’s worse in the summer because of RVs and trucks pulling campers.”
Both Summit and Glenwood Springs officials had another message for visitors: Be kind.
The labor shortage that grew acute during the pandemic years is still there, with many businesses short 25% of the staff they need.
“Just be kind and relax,” Langer said.
“Be kind to the front-line workers,” said McGary. “They’re doing the best they can, but you’re going to experience waits and delays.”