As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, Visit Las Vegas’ website is headed by a video acknowledging that the most important thing for people to do right now is to stay home. “When you’re ready, we’ll be ready,” it says.
“That speaks for a lot of us” in the tourism industry, said Doug Price, president of Visit Colorado Springs. “When you’re ready, we will be here — and better than ever.”
Tourism is a significant economic driver in the Pikes Peak region. According to Visit Colorado Springs, 2018 data from the Longwoods Report showed the region welcomed 23 million visitors, who spent an estimated $2.4 billion here. Travel and tourism pumped more than $6.6 million per day into the local economy and provided more than 20,000 local jobs. (2019 data will be released in June.)
But now leisure trips and visits to friends and family — the two most common reasons people come here — have come to a halt.
Visit COS, the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Tourism Office have suspended their advertising and are encouraging people to take reasonable precautions against transmitting the novel coronavirus.
“Our advertising is being pushed back to later in the year,” Price said. When it resumes, “our messaging and everything else will be changed and be appropriate for when it is time to invite people back.”
A YEAR OF BRIGHT SPOTS
The tourism industry began this year with high hopes for the 2020 season.
“The New York Times ranking of us being the No. 13 most desirable city in the world to visit — that was a really big thing for all of us,” Price said.
With the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum scheduled to open this spring, and the venerable Flying W Ranch being rebuilt, “we are well positioned in 2020 when the time is right,” he said.
The industry is coming off a year full of bright spots that Price saw as “the prologue to 2020.”
The LART tax, a 2 percent levy on lodging and 1 percent tax on auto rentals, raised $7.5 million, and in 2019 grew 5.11 percent over the previous year.
Progress on the Olympic museum and the other City for Champions projects, expected to attract millions of visitors, bode well for the future and helped, along with the new welcome sign on Interstate 25, to solidify Colorado Springs’ Olympic City brand.
The opening of the Hilton Garden Inn — the first newly built lodging property in downtown Colorado Springs in years — was another highlight, and several other hotel projects were started or planned.
Then came COVID-19.
“This year started out with an unexpected pandemic that has brought many industries, but especially tourism, to a virtual standstill,” Price said during Visit COS’ annual business meeting, conducted March 19 through a Facebook Live broadcast.
“The last week of February, there were certainly people here for spring break, and we saw people coming into the visitor center looking for information,” he said. “It tempered the first week in March and then it just dried up.”
The closing of the state’s ski resorts coincided with spring break and affected the whole state.
“There are people who don’t just go directly to the slopes,” Price said. “They do pre-trips, they do post-trips, and all that is lost.”
Almost $3.9 million of LART revenue in 2019 went to Visit COS to promote the Pikes Peak region. Those funds comprised the biggest part of its $4.5 million budget.
Visit COS spent the majority — more than $3.7 million — on marketing programs.
“We have a contract with the city for funding, but it’s based on having available funds. So we’re watching that carefully,” Price said.
Price said Visit COS’ marketing committee, comprised of tourism industry partners from hotels to attractions and restaurants, has been talking about what they need to be doing when the time comes to resume marketing.
“One of the things we’ve talked about is pooling some additional advertising dollars that could supplement a campaign that would be bigger than just what Visit COS would have in its normal budget … and have those funds dedicated and ready,” he said.
Initially, “we probably will not be reaching out to the international markets,” Price said. “It will be more of a drive market — Colorado and neighboring states and probably key cities that have direct flights into Colorado Springs.
“We know from research and just in the past that the leisure vacation traveler is very resilient, and they will be quicker to travel than groups or corporations. So we want to be positioned and ready to invite that leisure vacation traveler to come back to Olympic City USA when the time is right.”
Visit COS is also using this time to renovate its permanent headquarters at 515 S. Cascade Ave.
The visitor information center within the building will be expanded, the exterior entrance will be enhanced and a new digital sign will be installed at the corner of Cascade Avenue and Cimarron Street.
“With that part of downtown growing so quickly, we want to refresh our visitor information center in a way that will serve an increased number of visitors and give them the kind of experience that will make them want to stay longer,” Price said, adding that Visit COS is operating temporarily out of quarters across the street at 524 S. Cascade Ave.
At the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Information Center on Manitou Avenue, few people are coming through the door.
“We were ramping up for spring break when this hit,” Executive Director Leslie Lewis said. “A lot of our businesses see that spring break boost when winter gets a little bit quiet. Unfortunately, that’s what we lost.”
Like Visit COS, Manitou has paused out-of-state campaigns and is focused on supporting the town’s businesses that remain open.
“One of the things we’ve come up with is a push to make Manitou Springs your base camp for your Pikes Peak region adventure,” Lewis said. “We were heading in that direction when COVID hit. Our in-state marketing will ramp up when we know more about what this is looking like.”
Most of the town’s businesses are just trying to stay top of mind through social media channels, she said.
Buffalo Lodge Bicycle Resort, located just outside Manitou, is focused on helping the community get through the pandemic, owner Torie Giffin said.
“We are adjusting our rates to accommodate people in need,” Giffin stated in an email. “We are offering our units right now as short term rentals for anyone in the community who needs to set up a work space outside the home, who is displaced or in transition, for elderly parents or students who have been away at college who are now back and would like to be close to extended family but maybe not right in the same home.”
The vintage motor court’s private units, each of which has its own entrance, are well suited for guests to maintain their distance.
The lodge is offering gift certificates and merchandise online to generate additional revenue.
“We are making conscious choices of where we spend money and supporting other local businesses whenever we can versus shopping at large chains,” Giffin said.
Group bike rides are on hold, but the lodge is still planning to host the 16th Annual Roll Art Festival on May 16.
“If we are not able to physically have it, we may go the direction of having a virtual show through our social media channels versus postponing,” Giffin said. “We will be offering artwork for sale on our website to help support local creatives during this crisis. We encourage everyone all ages to submit any medium of bicycle related art to email@example.com.
“We are looking for all the silver linings, like having time to slow down be creative and make art.”
Price and his team, too, “are remaining optimistic and watching global trends to understand when this might peak and begin to flatten the curve,” he said.
“We have an experienced staff of people who’ve been marketing this destination for a long time,” Price said. “We’ve been through disasters before. … We’re all looking for a glimmer of hope right now.”
The state’s advertising agency, MMGY, markets Colorado not only to other states but to countries around the world.
“Just this week, they reported that they are beginning to see less cancellations and an uptick in reservations in Asia,” Price said. “All of us believe that this is temporary. … But we’ve got our hands on the wheel, and we’re looking out the windshield.”