As thick smoke filled the air over Colorado Springs and other Colorado towns, a dark cloud of a different type ascended on the local and statewide tourism industry.

Industry leaders know the state’s several wildfires could have a long-lasting financial effect, and they’re working to stem losses similar to what followed previous disasters.

After the Hayman fire ignited in Teller County in 2002, local tourism-related businesses saw revenue drop as much as 20 percent, says Pikes Peak Country Attractions director Michele Starling.

Hayman burned 138,114 acres and 133 homes and cost $40 million to extinguish. As of Wednesday morning, the Waldo Canyon fire had displaced 32,000 people and burned more than 15,000 acres, plus hundreds of homes.

Former Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau President Terry Sullivan suspects the Waldo fire could cause greater local tourism damage than Hayman did.

“Hayman was in Teller County and although you could see some smoke clouds, it didn’t have a significant impact on people’s travel plans to Colorado Springs,” Sullivan said. “There were no closures to any of our area attractions like we have encountered over the last couple days.”

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Starling declined to estimate the financial losses that could follow Waldo, but she knows it will be significant.

“When your two biggest landmarks, Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods, are closed, it has a big impact,” she said.

The entire town of Manitou Springs was evacuated on the second day of the fire, which has many of the business owners there worrying about the economic impact during the essential summer season.

Sending the message

“It’s all about communication right now,” said Manitou Chamber COO Roger Miller. “We’re letting people know the fire didn’t damage any businesses or any structures and we’re trying to use as much of the media as possible.”

During the Hayman fire, former Gov. Bill Owens announced during a press conference covered by national media that “All of Colorado is burning.” Bold-faced headlines appeared in newspapers across the nation — and mass hotel and vacation cancellations followed.

Tourism leaders learned an important lesson that year, Miller said.

“It’s important to get good information out and let the world know the whole place isn’t going up in smoke,” he said. “I don’t think people understand how much a rumor can cost, literally in dollars, for a business.”

He’s posted updates on the Chamber’s website and used Facebook and twitter to spread the word.

Even Gov. John Hickenlooper, who came to the Springs as neighborhoods caught fire Tuesday night, was careful to avoid hyperbole, saying that fires were affecting only a small part of Colorado.

The comeback plan

Starling is meeting with regional and state tourism leaders to begin crafting a unified “comeback plan” that agencies can use once the fire stops making national headlines.

Colorado Tourism Office Director Al White said marketing efforts will begin when the time is right.

“It’s definitely pretty early to think about a marketing plan now because we’re not sure how long these fires are going to burn or how they’re going to affect tourism, especially in the case of Waldo Canyon since it’s so new,” he said.

Colorado Springs CVB President Doug Price did not respond to interview requests, but spokeswoman Chelsy Murphy said the CVB is working closely with the Colorado Tourism Office to craft a comeback plan.

In Fort Collins, where the 87,000-acre High Park fire is burning, some marketing efforts are already under way.

“We’re using social media, and this is probably the most effective use I’ve seen for social media,” said Fort Collins CVB President Jim Clark, who was president of the Colorado Springs CVB from 1987 to 1990 before moving to Florida, where he marketed tourism after hurricanes.

He’s assigned a college intern to send three tweets an hour and several Facebook updates throughout the day.

“This, in some respects, is the most difficult disaster to deal with because you don’t know when it’s going to end,” Clark said. “And the impact could be more permanent. A hurricane, you rebuild. This is our natural environment and it’s what people come here for.”

He said he’s focused on local marketing efforts, trying to draw people from nearby areas for brewery tours and other festivities in town.

That’s what Miller and Starling say they are preparing to do when the Waldo Canyon fire is contained.

Starling said she will recommend focusing the message on regional visitors because Colorado Springs is typically a driving destination anyway and it will be hard to overcome the national news coverage.

She’s cut back on her budget now to save for a major advertising push after the fire is contained.

“Anything we do is going to have to be pretty dramatic,” Starling said.

She will recommend adding incentives to give people additional reasons to come to town.

“I could sell our tickets half-price,” Starling said. “We’d lose money. But that’s not the point — the point is to get people to come. We’ve never faced anything of this magnitude before.”

Aware of the scope of the fire and its probable effect on tourism, Mayor Steve Bach used a few simple words during a press conference Tuesday night.

“Colorado Springs is open for business,” he said. “And we hope people come here.”