Increasing marketing funding, perhaps via an attractions tax, is a priority for tourism officials.
Increasing marketing funding, perhaps via an attractions tax, is a priority for tourism officials.

Following several disappointing seasons, local tourism, like the real estate industry, is counting on pent-up demand and new regional projects to inject some much-needed capital into both the trade and the local economy.

Doug Price, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, said a market study funded by the Colorado Springs CVB and conducted by Tourism Economics of Philadelphia in March indicated 30 regional tourism projects recently completed or underway.

“The total investment is about $641 million,” Price said, listing recent renovations at The Broadmoor and Manitou Incline, rebuilding the park at Royal Gorge and projects such as City for Champions, the National Museum of World War II Aviation, the possible rebuilding of Flying W Ranch for a 2016 opening and even the Interstate 25/Cimarron Street interchange as impactful undertakings.

“The I-25/Cimarron interchange will be a huge investment not just for those who live here, but that is the main way to get to the mountains, to go west,” Price said. “Investments made here are positioning us beautifully for the future. We need to invite people to come here and learn about our attractions.

“This is not Field of Dreams. We can’t build it and just think people will come. The tourism industry is just too competitive. The mountains are a destination and offer just as many things in the summer as in the winter. They’re year-round destinations, and we have to compete and let people know we have these great things here.”

Optimism abounds

Mike Bandera, vice president and general manager of the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, said $35 million in insurance payouts following a 2013 wildfire were reinvested prior to the site’s reopening earlier this year.

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“This spring has been the strongest spring in recent history for us,” Bandera said. “We’re about 15 percent above the last spring opening, which was in 2013. All indications are it will be a strong tourist season.”

Ninety percent of the park was destroyed by fire in June 2013, including 48 of the park’s 52 structures.

A new visitors center and restaurant, two new gondolas, a zipline and a state-of-the-art ticketing system have been added. A children’s play area is under construction and is expected to open this month, Bandera said. The railway to the bottom of the gorge is not operational and is not expected to be functional any sooner than 2017, he said, but a 6,000-seat amphitheater will be the next large undertaking, with construction expected to begin this fall. The amenity is expected to open for concerts and music festivals next year, he said.

Ryan Cole, executive director of Pikes Peak Country Attractions, a business representing the marketing interests of 25 tourism sites in the region, said, “Everybody is optimistic about this tourist season. According to early numbers, this is going to be a great year. We’re optimistic because of gas prices and consumer spending.”

Cole said his company’s web traffic is “through the roof,” citing a 75 percent increase over May 2014 and an 85 percent increase year-to-date.

Destinations on Pikes Peak Country Attractions include Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Cave of the Winds, Cripple Creek, Pikes Peak Highway and the Western Museum of Mining and Industry, to name a few.

Cole said users from Texas, Illinois, Oklahoma, California, Missouri, Kansas, Florida, Minnesota and Louisiana drive the majority of the web traffic.

“Louisiana is up 285 percent over last year,” he said.

Charting the LART

Price was also generally optimistic about the season’s potential despite below-average resources to promote the region.

“Going into Memorial Day Weekend, AAA forecasted the highest travel volume in the state in 10 years,” he said, adding the Space Symposium’s draw in April provided a preseason boost to the city’s Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax.

“Over the first three months [of 2015], LART collections were up 7 percent year to date,” Price said, although the CVB’s market study found Colorado Springs, compared to 19 other Western cities, had a significantly lower promotional budget than its competitors.

He said the city’s LART, at 2 percent, generates about $3.4 million, which is, in turn, used to market the region.

Denver operates with a budget of $18.8 million while Albuquerque, a city of comparable size to Colorado Springs, promotes its tourism industry with a budget of $6.4 million.

The study recommended a target of $7.2 million in destination marketing organization funding via public sources, such as the LART, for the Pikes Peak region.

“To generate these funds we recommend considering raising the Colorado Springs LART to 4 percent and extending it to include attractions,” the study states, adding, “expanding the LART to include attractions, and raising the tax rate to 4 percent would raise an estimated $6.8 million at current levels of visitor activity, close to the target of $7.2 million.”

Price pointed to a 2 percent tax on movie tickets sold in Colorado Springs as a frame of reference.

“Most don’t know it, but that [tax] goes right into the [city’s] general fund. But we wouldn’t not go to a movie because of it, and it’s paid primarily by local residents. The majority going to local attractions are not locals,” he said.

Price also compared the impact of Denver’s 22,000 hotel rooms to 11,000 in Colorado Springs.

“They have double the hotel space but six times our promotional budget,” he said. “Our lodging and auto rental tax was set in 1980 and hasn’t changed in 35 years. Our highest year of collections was 1997, and that was the last year [Western Pacific Airlines] flew into the Springs.”

Price feels promoting the airport is critical to the tourism economy, saying, “[Airport management is] working hard to reduce the costs to the airlines to operate at the airport, and they’ve done a great job of bringing [costs] down.”

Price said the CVB doesn’t have the funds for television advertising, which could be used to promote the airport outside the state. A larger budget would expand the CVB’s media footprint.

“We could advertise on a year-round basis with the right resources,” he said. “We need people here in the summer, but we could do better on … our off-season marketing.

“It’s time to go out and tell our story in a bigger way,” Price said. “That’s what we will be working on between now and 2016.

“We’ll take recommendations from the study and really look at how we [address tourism] effectively for the whole region.”