The tourism industry in the Pikes Peak region enjoyed a record-setting year in 2016 — and this year might be even better.
One indication of that was the traffic jam created in early July by vehicles trying to reach the Pikes Peak Highway, which takes visitors to the top of America’s Mountain.
“Traffic was backed up all the way to Highway 24 and into a lane on 24,” said Colorado State Patrol Capt. John Lupton, commander of Troop 2B of El Paso and Teller counties. “Pikes Peak Highway was quick to deal with the situation.”
To help keep motorists safe and to improve traffic flow, state troopers helped direct traffic to mitigate the problem and a traffic control company was brought in to provide signage.
“We’ve been noticing a marked increase in traffic in recent years,” Lupton said, “especially the weekends in late June and early July.”
According to an annual visitor profile study from tourism research firm Longwoods International, the Pikes Peak region welcomed 23 million visitors in 2016, a 12 percent jump over the previous year. That number could jump again in 2017, said Doug Price, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“It’s very encouraging,” Price said. “Numbers tell part of the story but the rest of the story is us hearing from our members and partners who are confirming that we are seeing more people and they’re able to [charge a higher] rate.”
Higher rates result in more collections through the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax, which enables the CVB to market the region. The LART collects a 1 percent tax on auto rentals and 2 percent on lodging and the CVB receives two-thirds of those funds, which makes up 85 percent of the CVB’s nearly $5 million budget. The rest comes from membership dues, events and about $24,000 annually from El Paso County.
Through June 2017, LART collections were up 19.01 percent over the previous year.
“It won’t stay at 19 [percent], but by the time we get to the end of the year, I believe there will be double-digit growth over where we were in 2016,” Price said.
It’s marketing, he said, that helps attract visitors to the region, where tourists spent $2.25 billion in 2016, 14 percent higher than the previous year, which equates to $71 per second being infused into the Pikes Peak region’s economy.
Price said the CVB has been able to create more marketing campaigns with the increase in LART dollars.
The improved national economy and more direct flights to Colorado Springs Airport are also contributing to the spike in tourism, Price said, while noting that a new business in the area has also helped.
“We don’t tend to point to just one particular attraction or hotel, but there’s no denying that the Great Wolf Lodge has opened very successfully and brought 311 new rooms to the market,” Price said. “And the improved economy has allowed hotels to charge more. In the world of supply and demand, it’s been a great couple of years from a demand standpoint. You put more direct flights coming into the airport and make it easier for people to get here, and you’ve got a formula that says our tourism economy is going up.”
Some locals may like it when the summer tourist season ends but Price emphasized how important tourism is for the area.
“[Tourism is] the third-largest employer in the region with over 17,000 people,” he said, citing defense and health care as first and second. “You have people who depend on … tourism.”
The CVB’s media marketing budget — which involves print, digital and social — has generally gone up the last five years, according to the bureau’s Director of Communications Chelsy Offutt, who said that portion of the marketing budget tops out at about $1.1 million. It’s changed to target digital advertising more in recent years; it’s now at about 60 percent aimed at digital and 40 percent for print.
Advertising highlights in 2017 include a 90-second Garden of the Gods video that will run on matadornetwork.com; an all-digital airport campaign in three cities — Washington/Dulles, San Francisco and San Diego — that garnered nearly 23 million impressions; the use of 15 social media influencers who blog about outdoor adventure and Olympic City USA; a campaign that begins in November to create brand awareness of Olympic City USA; and a campaign that included 14 beer/distilled spirits partners, three bed & breakfast partners, three transportation partners and Pikes Peak Country Attractions.
“We are both a marketing and sales organization,” Price said. “We have a seven-person group sales team that goes to 42 trade shows a year. So their job is to sell Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region as a destination for meetings, conventions, sporting events, military reunions. You can draw about a 500-mile radius around Colorado Springs and your drive market tends to be where your leisure vacationer comes from. But the business traveler can come from coast to coast.”
The CVB spends to attract that drive-in leisure traveler.
“We did some research back in 2015 where we compared how much we’re funded as a CVB to 21 other destinations and we’re really low,” Offutt said. “When we get extra marketing dollars, we try to extend our marketing season. When you talk about the leisure traveler, you’re talking about April to July and we’ve really tried to push into that later market as far as the fall campaign.”
Pikes Peak Country Attractions Executive Director Patricia “PK” Knickerbocker said 2017 has been “a very good year” for the group’s members.
“Several of our members had their best-ever years so far,” she said. “A few struggled in Manitou [Springs] because of road construction. A few outdoor attractions struggled because of all the rain. I’m not sure we’ll beat last year as far as attractions go, but last year was freakishly big.
“People are coming to the region for a lot of different reasons and we’ve always had this big crush in the summer. Now we just need to make it year-round and more sustainable overall.”
In 1993, Colorado eliminated its marketing budget of $12 million. The result was a 30 percent plunge in market share in two years, costing the state $1.4 billion in tourism, according to a report by Longwoods International entitled “The Rise and Fall of Colorado Tourism.” The yearly loss rose to more than $2 billion and Colorado dropped from first to 17th among all states as a summer resort destination.
“We are the case study for not shutting off your marketing engine,” Offutt said.
In 2000, the state legislature reinstated funding at $5 million and return over investment in the next few years was 12:1, according to the report. In 2006, the state tourism promotion budget was up to $19 million and visitors reached an all-time high of 28 million.
Cathy Ritter, director of the Colorado Tourism Office, noted that Colorado set a record with 82.4 million visitors in 2016, up from 77.7 million the year before.
“Our share of leisure travelers went from 13th to ninth nationally and increased our market share from 2.8 percent in 2015 to 3.1 percent — a huge increase,” she said. “Our researchers say moving up four spots is extraordinary.”
Ritter said the Pikes Peak region had “amazing visitor numbers” in 2016.
“Almost 28 percent of those people who visited Colorado went to the Pikes Peak region,” she said. “That’s up from 26 percent the year before, already more than a quarter of the state.”
Ritter was impressed by those numbers, but understands the lure of the region.
“The quality and variety of attractions in that region is very impressive,” she said. “You have top-level attractions there. And once you add the Olympic Museum to that lineup, it’ll be even more impressive.”
Ritter said the Colorado Tourism Office doesn’t market individual attractions; it tries to bring people to the state by advertising nationally. Still, the Springs CVB works closely with the state tourism office, Offutt said in an email, and will “partner with them on a variety of media opportunities and co-op advertising, in addition to all of the work we do through our sales, marketing and [public relations] departments.”
Price said that the state tourism office invites people to Colorado and the different regions then vie for market share.
“So there are people on the Western Slope, in Grand Junction and Glenwood, that want you to come there and we want you to come south,” he said. “[Denver International Airport] is the No. 1 economic engine for the state of Colorado; it’s the No. 1 portal for people to come into the state. Denver is a great draw, a great attraction, and there’s so much to do there. People come for business and for leisure purposes. So if Denver is what brings you to Colorado, are you going to go north and go up to Rocky Mountain National Park and Fort Collins and Boulder, or are you going to come down here?” n CSBJ