Tourism in the Pikes Peak region finally began to heat up three to four years ago after the Great Recession, based on increasing tax revenues collected on visitor hotel stays and car rentals.
Last year, the numbers were even better; bed and car revenues climbed to a record high and a separate tally showed hotel occupancy jumped on a year-over-year basis.
Now, as the Memorial Day weekend kicks off the unofficial start of summer, the Pikes Peak region is poised for what travel industry members say should be a stellar year for tourism.
“Everything is pointing to a stronger ’17 than ’16, and 2016 was remarkable,” said Doug Price, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Through April, revenues from Colorado Springs’ levy on hotel rooms and rental cars – the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax or LART – already are running nearly 20 percent ahead of where they were last year at this time.
For 2016, LART revenues were up 15.6 percent on a year-over-year basis; that’s a big turnaround from a few years earlier, when lodging and auto rental tax revenues declined 4.5 percent from 2011 to 2012.
Besides increasing LART revenues as an indicator, optimistic travel industry members point to several factors they expect will help drive a standout summer:
It’s better, of course. And when consumers are confident about their jobs and finances, they’ll spend money on travel, among other discretionary items.
Echo Canyon River Expeditions, which operates rafting trips on the Arkansas River south of Colorado Springs, expects this year’s number of rafters to at least equal its record high of more than 26,000 in 2016, said Ben Sack, general manager of Echo Canyon River Expeditions.
“People are finding themselves in a better financial place, the majority of families,” Sack said. “That’s enabling them to have some expendable income. That’s allowing them to get out and not just for the ‘staycation’ in Texas or Oklahoma or whatever area they’re from, and be able to make a longer drive and commit to a little more investment in that family vacation.”
It never hurts to get love from travel industry publications and websites. This month, TripAdvisor – which bills itself as the world’s largest travel site – ranked Colorado Springs as No. 24 on its list of top 50 summer travel destinations.
The ranking was based on destinations that are seeing the biggest increase in hotel bookings from this spring to summer. The Springs ranking placed it ahead of popular destinations such as Denver, San Diego, Boston, Salt Lake City and Seattle.
The number of Pikes Peak region attractions isn’t lost on vacationers who like to enjoy a variety of activities when they travel, said Jack Damioli, president and CEO of The Broadmoor hotel.
Vacationers can go to the Air Force Academy, the Olympic Training Center and other venues, but also visit natural settings such as the Garden of the Gods, The Broadmoor Seven Falls or the Manitou Cliff Dwellings, he said.
“Yes, the economy is positive and people are feeling better and traveling, but I also think the area that we’re in is driving a lot of that demand,” Damioli said of the different types of activities. “Colorado Springs has the best of both worlds.”
Industry members believe they’ll reap more visits by upping the ante on marketing campaigns – both how much they spend and where they spend it.
The Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau and Office of Economic Development has increased its tourism marketing by $40,000, or 20 percent, in 2017 compared with 2016, said Leslie Lewis, the group’s executive director.
Manitou officials target Colorado residents who might want to play in their own backyard, Lewis said. But they also go after tourists from warm-weather areas who want to cool off – Texas, Oklahoma, and Midwestern states.
“The state’s putting a lot of money into advertising, we’re putting more money into advertising, Colorado Springs is putting more money into advertising,” Lewis said. “Hopefully, that will all lead to additional visitors to the Pikes Peak region this year.”
This month, the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau launched digital ads – via Facebook and other social media platforms – targeting travelers in San Diego, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Frontier Airlines is starting nonstop flights this summer to those markets from the Colorado Springs Airport; other new cities to be served by Frontier with nonstop flights from the Springs include Chicago, Los Angeles, and Fort Meyers and Tampa, Fla.
The ads are meant to grab the attention of travelers in those markets – promoting visits to the Pikes Peak region, but also highlighting increased service at the Colorado Springs Airport, Price said.
“We just haven’t had this kind of air service opportunity put in front of us,” he said. “We absolutely have to fill seats in these other markets.”
The CVB also is increasing use of the Olympic City USA brand in its print and digital advertising, Price said. Colorado Springs introduced the moniker in early 2016 to promote its ties to the nation’s Olympic movement.
Online marketing is an important tool as well, said PK Knickerbocker, executive director for Pikes Peak Country Attractions, a marketing group for several tourist destinations in the region.
Visitors to the Pikes Peak Country Attractions’ website can jump to the pages of its member tourist attractions, which is a big boost to those destinations, Knickerbocker said. Echo Canyon, for example, has seen a 7 percent jump in online traffic over the last 30 days, which originated from the Pikes Peak Country Attractions site, she said.
Favorable weather is more than just sunny days and cool nights.
Recent rainfalls have lessened immediate concerns about fires, Price said. And visitor questions appear to have fallen off since the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012 and the Black Forest fire the following year, he said.
“We don’t get asked that question here, we really don’t,” he said. “When 2013 happened on the heels of 2012, there were people that I think were concerned, who said, ‘how dry is Colorado Springs?’ But we have not really had to face that question really since 2013.”
A healthy dose of moisture isn’t the only plus for the area.
Echo Canyon, for example, expects ideal rafting conditions this summer thanks to ample snowfall over the winter and spring that left snowpack at a little more than 100 percent of average, Sack said.
Melting snow collects in reservoirs, and water discharged into the Arkansas River contributes to the river’s flow, or speed, for recreational purposes – such as rafting, Sack said. Looking ahead, he said, there should be optimal rafting conditions for an extended period of the summer.
At the start of last week, regular unleaded gas prices nationwide were up roughly 7 cents a gallon when compared with the same time last year, according to GasBuddy.com, which tracks prices around the country. Even so, prices have remained relatively stable and are about 40 cents lower per gallon than two years ago, GasBuddy figures show.
As a result, many out-of-staters will feel comfortable driving to Colorado, Sack said. For Echo Canyon, the vast majority of its customers come from Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and other areas that require only a day’s worth of driving and fill-ups to reach Colorado.
New venues, attractions and events
Colorado Springs will host the first stage of the four-stage Colorado Classic bike race, which runs from Aug. 10-13; it replaces the USA Pro Challenge.
This month, Echo Canyon opened its Royal Gorge Cabins – nine luxury cabins west of Canon City. And the 311-room Great Wolf Lodge on the Springs’ far north side opened a 50,000-square-foot, indoor water park in December.
“It’s a unique new product for our marketplace,” Price said. “With 311 rooms, it just gives us a whole new message for families that want to come here and have what I would call a weatherproof experience with that indoor water park.”