It’s only halftime, but local tourism is determined to win

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In the game of summer tourism, Colorado Springs got its butt kicked in the first half by the Waldo Canyon fire.

But the summer isn’t over.

Local hoteliers, bed-and-breakfast inn keepers and tourism officials are changing the game plan, crafting an offensive strategy designed to win in the second half.

“The initial loss was devastating to all of us,” said Broadmoor Vice President of Marketing Dennis Lesko. “But the recovery seems to be balancing out throughout the Pikes Peak region — attractions are gearing up for a great September and October.”

Tourism, a $1.3 billion industry in Colorado Springs and El Paso County, is the third-largest employer and a big contributor to the city’s general fund. Last year, the Lodgers and Auto Rental Tax contributed $3.9 million to the city’s coffers — up 6.1 percent over 2010. Until the fire, the LART had a strong showing with a 2.1 percent increase over last year.

Summer tourism revenue pays most bills for the rest of the year. The hit from the fire could result in a 10 to 20 percent loss in business from last summer.

But no one is ready to call the game.

“We are all becoming more savvy, and even more aggressive, with Facebook and Twitter,” said Don Wick, owner of Old Town Guesthouse bed and breakfast. His bookings are down by 10 percent since the fire and the phones have gone silent.

But the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau is ready to throw a Hail Mary pass with a $200,000 media blitz set to hit the Internet and social media sites soon, targeting summer travelers.

Normally, CVB wouldn’t advertise this late in the season to the leisure market, thinking people have already made their plans.

“We realize the importance of trying to get some of that traffic in last-minute travel,” said Chelsy Murphy, CVB public relations manager.

One thing Colorado Springs tourism has going for it is the Texas heat, said Sheri Schwagart, owner of Adobe Inn at Cascade. Summer in El Paso County is still much cooler than in Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma — three states the CVB will target in the coming weeks.

“With the nature of people planning with such short notice, the CVB campaign might work to help fill in the gaps,” Schwagart said.

B&Bs will need the help, she said. The small inns that dot the city and the mountains of El Paso County are historically busy from mid-May through the end of October. This year the still-sluggish economy got the season off to a slow start, Schwagart said.

“We were looking forward to getting busy,” she said.

Her inn had three solid weeks booked starting June 23. Then the fire came.

“It was the worst time of the year — it really happened when the tourist season was just starting to hit its stride,” Schwagart said.

B&B innkeepers huddled this week to discuss strategy and marketing message. It’s not good enough to say businesses are open, Schwagart said. Vacationers don’t make their decisions on travel because they feel sorry for a town, she said.

“We have to translate to them that there is something of value in the transaction,” she said.

She’s already seen the evidence. There was a 70 percent reduction in traffic to her inn’s website from any tourism sites that addressed the Waldo Canyon fire, and no reduction in bounce from travel sites that didn’t mention the fire, she said.

“You don’t want to ignore the elephant, but it’s a fine line of reinforcing the negative image,” she said.

There are 14,000 rooms available in Colorado Springs, and that does not include bed and breakfast inns. Large hotels, like The Broadmoor and Crowne Plaza, made it though the fire without any large group cancellations. Three conventions planned at The Broadmoor rescheduled for the fall, Lesko said.

At the Crowne Plaza, the Horseless Carriage Car Club of America still came as planned on June 30.

“One night we were giving them a champagne toast, I got choked up,” said Dana Kahlhamer, Crowne Plaza associate director of sales. “I am thanking them from the bottom of my heart, saying we needed you and you came.”

The real story will be how the tourism industry competes in the second half, Wick said.

“The message we are trying to give is that this is a beautiful place to be and don’t come because you feel sorry for us,” Wick said. “The hiking trails are open, Pikes Peak is open and the weather is gorgeous.”