Royal Gorge Railroad steams ahead despite downturn

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One of the more interesting trends of the downturn saw those with discretionary income begin to buy “experiences” to create memories, rather than purchasing yet another flat-screen TV or some other material item.

One of the regional tourist attractions that benefited from this shift in the consumer psyche was The Royal Gorge Route Railroad in Canon City, about an hour southwest of Colorado Springs.

The railroad is owned by Mark and Leah Greksa, who purchased the tracks from Union Pacific Railroad and have been operating train service through the Royal Gorge, along the Arkansas River, since 1998.

Revenue at the railroad increased each year, and 2008 was a peak year for the operation. Then the recession hit. Unlike many small businesses, however, the railroad was able to maintain a steady revenue stream despite the downturn.

How was that possible?

Greksa attributes it in part to adjustments the attraction made to attract a variety of budgets. The railroad now offers more than coach class tickets, for example.

It also refurbished some of the cars on its train to include glass domes and offers what it calls “vista” tours.

The company also refurbished its bar car, where guests can have a 1950s type of experience, he said.

“People want to be treated as guests,” he said. “It’s a simple recipe: treat people well, provide them high-quality food and they will come back.”

In other words, give them an experience they won’t forget.

This year, Greksa expects about a 5 percent increase in revenue.

The train attracts riders and families from all over Colorado, who often stay overnight in the area, and dine at local restaurants.

The standard route covers 24 miles and takes two hours to go through the gorge. Service on the train includes a la carte items or full-service meals and wine-pairing dinners in the vista car. All guests have access to an open-air car for better viewing the gorge.

For those willing to spend extra, its Wine Train route pairs wines from Holy Cross Abby in Canon City and vineyards in California and Washington with five dinner entrees during a three-hour trip.

All told, the train, which has 17 cars in all, ferries about 100,000 people per year. That’s up from 65,000 riders in 2006.

“We expected for it to be a little bit tougher for us (during the recession), but there are still a lot of people coming out,” Greksa said.

Last month, the railroad more than doubled the number of tickets sold — from 5,500 in 2009 to 13,000 in 2010 — during its five-week run of the Santa Express Train, in late November and through December.

Greksa hopes to increase that number to 20,000 riders in the next holiday season.

“A train ride is different; it provides an escape,” Greksa said.

Part of the experience includes something that a lot of people might also enjoy:

“You can’t get cell phone service down in the gorge, so that’s a good thing,” Greksa said.

Speaking of things in the gorge, the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, which is a separate entity from the railroad, just had its best year ever.

The park, which opened more than 75 years ago, doesn’t reveal its revenue but Michele Carvell, executive director of the Pikes Peak Country Attractions Association, told me they’re doing back-flips over 2010’s results.

The attraction expects continued growth in 2011, and the owner plans to expand by adding a new feature later this year.

Of course, I asked but was told details would come later.

Tourism at the Statehouse

The annual legislative reception for the Tourism Industry Association of Colorado was held this week, and Carvell said the reception had the highest attendance by legislators she’s seen in years.

Legislators, she said, heard presentations on the importance of tourism’s contribution to Colorado’s economic development and vitality.

Better yet, there’s been support from Gov. John Hickenlooper to increase the Colorado Tourism Office funding from $10 million to $15 million annually.

“Everyone (in the tourism industry) is feeling good about 2011,” Carvell said.

Rebecca Tonn can be reached at rebecca.tonn@csbj.com or 719-329-5229. Friend her on Facebook.