For 15 years, Terry Sullivan worked to bring Colorado Springs a convention center that, in his opinion, the city desperately needed.
But, in a stunning defeat for proponents, voters approved a ballot initiative in 2004 that barred the city from using tax money to plan such a facility. At first dismayed, the longtime CEO of Experience Colorado Springs at Pikes Peak, the convention and visitors bureau, says that he has accepted the results of the vote, and has moved on.
Sullivan said that the tourism industry is facing dramatic challenges. And instead of planning a multi-million dollar downtown convention center complex, he has lowered his sights – focusing on a more modest dream of constructing a 60-mile trail system around Pikes Peak.
Sullivan’s plan: create a network of trails and huts that would be available to hikers, mountain bikers and campers, with multiple points of entry. The trail system, first proposed by the Trails Coalition a dozen years ago, would tie together a dozen regional trail systems, and, Sullivan suggests, would become a national destination.
But just how would a system of trails crisscrossing the mountains entice visitors to stop in the Springs?
Sullivan said the answer lies in the changes permeating the tourism industry, which once relied almost exclusively on “drive and gawk” attractions.
“Today’s travelers want to do, to experience, to learn,” Sullivan said. Destinations such as Santa Fe, Taos, Boulder and even Denver offer a full menu of activities and experiences for travelers.
Based on a survey of people who visited the CVB’s Web site, and ordered a visitor’s guide, Colorado Springs might be described as a “mature destination.” Of 549 respondents, the 18-34 demographic accounted for less than 13 percent, while 33 percent fell in the 45-54 age group and 34 percent were over 55.
Such a demographic profile might doom a brewer to bankruptcy, but not a tourist destination, where affluent visitors of a certain age are actively wooed. And, Sullivan said, today’s mature travelers are far more active and engaged than those of the last generation.
But is the CVB, long the champion of car-based family tourism, capable of re-inventing itself, and leading this process?
During the past year, a cumbersome 25-person board has been cut to nine, and discussions are under way with the Greater Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp. and the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce to move into shared space when the bureau’s current lease expires.
However, despite changes in the board, and despite adopting a five-year strategic plan in 2005, the CVB does not appear to have changed its focus.
Much of its $3.3 million budget is directed at traditional “rubber tire tourism,” which serves the interests of the small and medium-sized businesses that have long dominated the CVB’s board.
This focus has been a source of friction between the CVB and The Broadmoor Hotel, which accounts for nearly 20 percent of city-wide lodging tax collections, amounting to nearly $700,000 annually.
With its own marketing department aimed at high-end visitors, The Broadmoor quite possibly has derived little benefit from the CVB.
So who is benefiting? And what exactly does the CVB contribute to Colorado Springs?
In its annual report, the CVB claims that of the $1 billion tourism dollars spent last year in Colorado Springs, “Over $300 million can be attributed to the activities of [the CVB].”
Does this mean that, if the CVB ceased operations, visitor revenue would fall by $300 million? No.
As Sullivan admits, there are multiple organizations chasing visitor dollars, and their activities often overlap. A group, or a single visitor, might seek information from half a dozen sources before booking a trip, including state, city, CVB and hotel Web sites.
So, it’s often not clear which entity actually deserves credit for the sale.
But it isn’t just dollar amounts that are difficult to quantify. In 2004, the bureau identified the Garden of the Gods as the city’s leading destination, with more than 2 million visitors annually.
That translates to a daily year-round average of 6,000 folks, which would mean that the GOG welcomes about four times as many visitors as Mesa Verde (550,000), and only a few hundred thousand less than Yellowstone National Park (2.8 million).
According to Sullivan, the bureau doesn’t vet the visitor statistics that members such as the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center report.
While determining an exact count for visitors at any particular attraction might be somewhat difficult, one challenge facing the CVB is crystal clear: money.
For the last seven years, the CVB’s budget has scarcely increased, thanks to a stagnant local visitor economy.
Visitors to Colorado Springs pay a 2 percent hotel room tax, one of the lowest in the nation. According to the Destination Marketing Association, the average room tax is 6.7 percent, which means that the CVB’s budget is far less than those of its competitors.
This year, the CVB will spend $3.3 million, while San Antonio will dispose of $14.7 million, Phoenix $13.6 million, Denver $12 million, and Salt Lake City $13 million.
So, with limited resources and the focus shifted from conventioneers to hikers and bikers, what the next move?
Colorado Springs needs to re-invent itself, Sullivan said.
“Over the next one to two years, we need to have a community visioning process, and determine how to meet these challenges,” he said. “We’re stuck in the mud. We haven’t been able to create the demand generators we need to grow tourism.”