Visits to the Pikes Peak region increased slightly in 2017, the latest year for which figures are available from tourism research firm Longwoods International.
That increase may have been small, but VisitCOS President and CEO Doug Price will take it.
“Every year we’re setting records,” he said. “When you can just get a little bit more over what was a previous record, you still have to be happy with where things are.”
The forecast for this season is strong, Price said.
“Everybody’s staffing up; I think we’re going to have a good summer.”
The U.S. Senior Open Championship golf tournament at The Broadmoor resort was a highlight of the 2018 tourist season.
“It was not only a nice boost for the area hotels, attractions and restaurants, but the exposure from something like that — there’s Fox broadcasting around the globe,” Price said. “We won’t have that this summer, but we’ve got some other things that are taking place.”
About 23.1 million people visited the Pikes Peak region in 2017 and spent more than $2.3 billion here, according to VisitCOS’ 2018 annual report.
Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax collections were up 7.5 percent in 2018 over the previous year, topping $7 million for the first time, and hotel occupancy showed a 2.45 percent increase over 2017.
The 2018 season saw the closure of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway but also was marked by the initiation of projects that will benefit the region this year and in years to come.
The DoubleTree by Hilton unveiled a multimillion-dollar renovation in March. New lodging properties included the Best Western Plus Fillmore Inn/Executive Residency, My Place Hotel and the SCP Hotel.
Five new hotels were under construction during 2018, including the soon-to-open Hilton Garden Inn at Bijou Street and North Cascade Avenue.
The year also saw the announcement of two additional downtown hotels: Kinship Landing on North Nevada Avenue and a Marriott property scheduled to break ground June 17 at Tejon and Costilla streets.
“I think that the pent-up demand for development is starting to take root,” Price said. “The Mining Exchange was the last new full-service hotel that opened. There really hadn’t been any new hotel developed in downtown Colorado Springs. Though we have a bigger area to market, you hear lots of people say that a healthy and thriving downtown is something that makes a destination really attractive.
“I’m excited that new hotels are coming and that they’re coming on the heels of the Olympic Museum.”
This year is looking good thus far. LART collections are up 17 percent for the year to date through March, said Chelsy Offutt, VisitCOS director of communications.
The first quarter of this year was “very strong,” Price said, but indications are that “April and May have not been as strong as last year.”
Accolades for the region such as U.S. News & World Report naming Colorado Springs among the top 10 places to live and the Today Show calling it one of the top places to visit with family will help to lure visitors, Price said.
Offutt said VisitCOS will have a better idea this year of how many people are visiting the region using a new technology called Arrivalist.
The system, also in use by the state tourism department, embeds pixels into digital ads on mobile devices. It tracks when people receive these ads and again when those people and their devices arrive at their destinations.
“We don’t get IP addresses or names,” Offutt said. “But it does give us a snapshot of people who were served this ad at this time with this campaign and they actually showed up in market. So it really helps us hone the dollars that we’re spending with our ad agency, Orange 142. They’re constantly looking at this data and tweaking it to what’s working, and optimizing our campaigns.”
Manitou Springs will feel the loss of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, which closed in 2017 and did not reopen for the 2018 season.
“Last year we had a lot of people who still came to the region and expected to ride the cog,” said Leslie Lewis, director of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau. “I don’t think we’re going to have that luxury this year, but a lot of other things are attracting people to the region.”
Lewis said last season was excellent for lodging properties but was basically flat for Manitou’s gift shops.
Although retail shops’ taxable sales revenue was up 3.4 percent in 2018, “that’s almost flat because costs have increased,” Lewis said.
A major cost is the rising minimum wage, which affects shops and restaurants.
“When we have people talking about the high cost of dining out, all of their suppliers have gone up, in addition to their own employees,” she said.
Lewis said two new restaurants are giving visitors more dining options. The new eateries include Oka Ramen and soon-to-open Babu’s Kitchen, an Indian and Nepalese restaurant.
In addition, the popular Border Burger Bar moved to a creekside location in the Spa Building.
Lewis said this year’s visitor numbers might also be affected by the reopening of Colorado Avenue.
Although the final repaving and finishing touches on the Westside Avenue project won’t be finished until later this year, the span between Old Colorado City and Manitou is getting easier to traverse.
“They’re going to be doing a big ribbon cutting and open that pathway to all of the Colorado Springs residents who haven’t been coming over because they didn’t want to fight the construction,” Lewis said.
She noted that the Colorado Department of Transportation will be repaving Highway 24 this summer.
“My understanding is that they’re doing most of that at night, so it won’t have the major impact that it could have.”
Lewis said several special events will draw visitors to Manitou this summer.
The 2019 Wine Festival, set for June 1 in Memorial Park, will be bigger this year, she said. The Silent Disco was well attended last year and will be repeated on June 15. The event will take place in Soda Springs Park, along with a food truck rally.
The Commonwheel Artists Labor Day Art Festival always attracts huge crowds and likely will do so again this year when it will be held Aug. 31-Sept. 2. And Lewis noted that the Emma Crawford Coffin Races, another big draw, will be celebrating its 25th year on Oct. 26.
In all, “I think this is going to be an OK year,” Lewis said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a blockbuster, but we’re going to keep moving forward.”
A LOOK AHEAD
One of the moving targets for this summer is the Air Force Academy Chapel, Price said. Because a $68 million renovation and four-year closure of the chapel has been postponed, visitors will be able to see the chapel and new planetarium, at least until the Air Force gets the funds to start on the project.
“We thought it was going to close in June,” Price said. “Now that’s been extended at least through September, pending the financing.”
The cog railway, which is undergoing a $95 million renovation, is scheduled to reopen in 2021, and the Pikes Peak summit complex is on track to open in fall 2020.
When complete, those projects and the Olympic Museum, set to open in early 2020, are expected to be major tourism draws.
Another much-loved tourist attraction, the Flying W Ranch, will reopen by Memorial Day 2020.
The ranch will be breaking ground June 29, the seven-year anniversary of the date when the Waldo Canyon wildfire destroyed the attraction. Construction is expected to take nine months.
The main building will be completed next January, said Aaron Windsor, general manager of the ranch.
“It’ll be the dining hall for now and some other items, but the rest will be built over time,” Windsor said.
“Boy, have we missed the Flying W,” Price said. “Groups, tour buses, they love the chuckwagon. That’s something that’s almost irreplaceable.”
With the region poised for tourism growth in 2020 and 2021, Price said VisitCOS will be working with UCCS and Pikes Peak Community College to make sure the industry has the leadership and personnel it needs.
“As we see tourism’s trajectory grow, we also see a large industry need to identify and groom local tourism talent,” he said.
VisitCOS is helping to develop a multiyear program for students who would begin their studies at PPCC and transfer their credits to UCCS.
“It’s too soon to say what it’s going to look like, … [but] we have a 100 percent commitment [from PPCC] that by fall 2020 they are going to start a hospitality program,” he said. “Once we have that program solidified, then UCCS will come into the picture.”