ski

Monarch Mountain is the closest ski resort to Colorado Springs Airport. Visitors may use their boarding passes from COS to get discounts on the mountain.

Wintertime in Colorado comes with countless opportunities for tourists to enjoy. 

Whether visitors come to Colorado Springs for business or pleasure, activities such as Jeep tours, ice climbing and skiing are popular throughout the winter, as are trips to destinations like The Broadmoor Seven Falls, the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center in Teller County, and around Christmastime, the Electric Safari at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

Doug Price, president and CEO of the city’s tourism marketing body, Visit COS, said that tourists have continued to visit Colorado Springs during the pandemic (see page 18).

He said data from Smith Travel Research, which provides market analytics on the global hotel industry, shows that as of Aug. 15, Colorado Springs was leading the nation in hotel occupancy.

“So people are definitely coming,” Price said. “Because of the strength of our outdoor recreation and all the things to do here, we have been leading the country. So I can tell you that people have been coming, and people have been spending money.”

But just as summer tourism has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the colder months will likely be affected as well. 

The great outdoors

Much of Colorado’s tourism is driven by the state’s great outdoors, and because outdoor activities are a safer way to recreate during the pandemic, leisure tourism has remained relatively strong.

Brian Shelton, president and founder of the rock and ice climbing guide business Front Range Climbing Company, said that while things have been slower than usual this year, he’s been “floored” by how many customers the business still had this summer, many of whom come to Colorado from nearby Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

About three-quarters of the business’ yearly revenue is made during the summer months, Shelton said. 

Price said while Visit COS has not marketed to out-of-state tourists during the pandemic, visitors from states within a day’s drive have continued coming to the Centennial State.

But the potential for poor road conditions and less predictable weather in the winter means tourists may be less likely to make the trip. And because many people are still hesitant to travel by plane, it’s unclear what winter numbers will look like in Colorado Springs.

Shelton said Front Range Climbing Company is projecting at least a 35 to 40 percent decrease in winter revenue compared to past years, with an 18 to 20 percent decrease in rock climbing.

When it comes to ice climbing, much of the company’s revenue is generated from large group sessions, but because of restrictions on large gatherings, that part of the business has been “pretty much dead,” Shelton said, adding the company will likely gear its winter marketing toward small groups of locals this year, rather than large groups and out-of-state visitors.

He said the worst case scenario for this winter would be a 40 to 50 percent decline in ice climbing revenue. The best case scenario, he said, would be if conditions improve so that restrictions on group sizes are lifted, allowing the company to resume larger events.

“I don’t know what the winter is going to look like,” Shelton said. “It’s really up in the air. But we already run pretty lean here in the winter because we know what it brings. So we take care of all of our overhead and bills and everything like that during the summer months.”

Hitting the slopes?

Perhaps the most popular winter tourism activities in Colorado are skiing and snowboarding at the state’s popular resorts. Monarch Mountain is the closest ski resort to Colorado Springs and the Colorado Springs Airport is its closest commercial airport.

A partnership between COS and the ski resort also allows guests to the mountain to use their Colorado Springs boarding pass for a discounted lift ticket.

Dan Bender, marketing director for Monarch, said volume projections for this season have been a “moving target,” but because skiing is a sport in which it’s easy to maintain social distancing, he anticipates this ski season will be similar to past years’.

“I’ve been accused of being dangerously optimistic but I would like to think we can have a pretty average year,” Bender said. 

If sales of season passes are any indication, the year could be even better than average — Monarch has already bested its 2019 season pass sales, which were record-breaking for the resort. 

“People are anxious to get out and recreate and they have enough confidence in this season,” Bender said, “that they want to make an investment in it with that season pass.”

Most of Monarch’s visitors are from Colorado Springs or Pueblo, but Bender said the resort also sees significant traffic from cities and states within an eight-hour drive.

Because of the pandemic, it’s unclear how many of its usual out-of-state visitors will make the trip to Colorado this winter, but Bender believes if the virus is contained by next ski season, it could lead to a banner year for the state’s resorts.

“People are going to be chomping at the bit to get out and do something,” Bender said. “So once we get this thing behind us, or at least have it controlled so we can live with it, I think we’ll see a great year following it.”

Though many come to the Colorado Springs area in the winter to enjoy the sights and the outdoors, Price said the majority of winter tourism is skewed toward those who travel for business.

“Frankly, we’re not counting too highly on business tourism returning this winter,” Price said. “The airport is probably one of the best barometers that you have on people, because yes, people will drive, but for the most part … if you’re traveling for business, you’re flying. So we are concerned about the winter tourism picture from a business standpoint.”

Large conventions, which sometimes bring thousands, if not tens of thousands of visitors to Colorado Springs at once, cannot take place. Without them, the city forgoes millions of dollars in tourism revenue.

The annual Space Symposium, for instance, was supposed launch in late March, but because of the virus, was rescheduled for October. The symposium was later postponed again, this time to August 2021.

Speaking to the Business Journal in April following the first postponement, Mayor John Suthers said revenue derived from the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax paid by symposium attendees is “probably $2 [million] or $3 million,” but that the symposium’s overall impact, when accounting for sales tax collected by restaurants, retail stores and other businesses, is likely closer to $5 million.

Price said industry-wide, experts predict business tourism levels will not return to pre-pandemic levels until the end of 2023.

“And we are not expecting the international market to come back to the United States until the end of 2025,” Price said.

He said while the state’s tourism businesses (as well as those who benefit indirectly from tourists coming to Colorado Springs) continue to struggle due to the pandemic, it’s critical local residents offer them support.

“I’ve only been here 10 years but I’ve been here through the fires and I’ve been here through the floods and I know that we [as Coloradans] want to know what we can do to help,” Price said. “And I would just encourage [people] to not lose that mindset and to think about supporting our local businesses. And when they have friends and family that come in from out of town to really support our hotels and our attractions and our restaurants and our retailers. Because if we don’t, they may not be here next year.”

Reporter

Zach Hillstrom is a Colorado Springs native and graduate of Colorado State University-Pueblo. He has worked as a reporter for Southern Colorado print outlets since 2015.