Springs marketing its way out of fire’s economic effects

Amy Long’s voice is calm and hopeful.

In the tourism game, she understands the ebb and flow of the market better than anyone. She’s the vice president of marketing and membership at the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.

After the Waldo Canyon fire took a turn toward Colorado Springs on June 26, she was immediately thinking about how the city would market itself beyond the ashes. There was actual discussion about how long to wait before slamming the airwaves, billboards and magazines with images of beautiful Colorado Springs in a Welcome Back campaign.

“We had to start the Welcome Back program right away,” Long said. “We knew we had to market this area after the fire. The questions is how soon to start — too soon is insensitive.”

This is Long’s area of expertise. And, she plans on winning.

And she knows winning will cost. The CVB dug deep into its reserves for $100,000 to put toward a Welcome Back marketing campaign. Springs area businesses — reeling from the loss of business during peak tourism season — impressively ponied up $70,000 for the campaign.

And, this month the CVB won two grants — one from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration for $100,000 and one from the Colorado Tourism Office for $10,000 — to save tourism and promote the region.

“It was in direct response to the need for additional advertising,” Long said about the grants.

It’s been reported that wildfires happen on every continent except Antarctica. It’s also been reported that when disaster strikes, tourism is hit the hardest.

There is no denying that the Waldo Canyon fire, which destroyed 350 homes, had a similar impact on summer tourism. The proof was released last week in the city’s latest sales tax report — Lodger’s and Automobile Rental Tax collections were down 16.41 percent for July.

And that might not be the worst of it, said Fred Crowley, senior economist for the Southern Colorado Economic Forum. The Mountain Shadows residents who lost their homes may have helped in propping up hotel occupancy until they got settled in apartments or rental homes. August LART collections, which will come out next month, may present a clearer picture, he said.

“I think the city took a larger hit in tourism than is suggested by the July numbers,” he said. “In August, people have found apartments or homes to rent.”

Crowley said the locals ought to care deeply about the tourism numbers. Each year about 6 million people visit the Pikes Peak region and they spend about $1 billion. That spending helps pump up the city’s general fund budget, of which about 50 percent comes from sales and use taxes.

But those two weeks of fire and immediately after the fire cut out big chunks of a whole year’s worth of business revenue, said Aikta Marcoulier, Small Business Development Center director. She estimates, based on a survey of hundreds of businesses affected by the fire, the total loss of business at $8.6 million.

On that news, SBDC kicked into marketing mode. Marcoulier’s team is helping small-business owners pump up their online marketing presence using a program called Brandify. Small businesses can get a score and information on how to make their online presence stronger, Marcoulier said. And consultants at SBDC will help with the plans.

“They can use it to a have a better presence to tourists,” she said. “In a time when marketing dollars are scarce, I can’t stress enough taking advantage of this free program.”

Long believes Colorado Springs can market its way out of the fire’s economic destruction and make up the losses in LART, even coming out a little ahead by year’s end.

She waited a week and half after the fire and then went to work buying up ads. The CVB spent $125,000 online advertising and $75,000 in traditional print advertising. It advertised in Denver, Kansas City, Dallas and other areas in Texas. She hit radio, bus stops, billboards and airports and bought ads in AARP and football magazines in Texas.

The AARP magazine generated 4,000 leads — meaning that many people filled out a card requesting more information about Colorado Springs. That’s a good sign, Long said.

“July was tough,” she said. “Indications are that August is good. We see that from the Rocky Mountain Lodging Report and from conversations with hoteliers. We are optimistic about August and September, and October looks quite good.”