If Colorado Springs tourism were a bear, it would be headed into hibernation now.
When visitors think of Colorado in the winter, they think of skiing — and that leaves the non-ski towns like the Springs with little to no honey. Some attractions, hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns have worked up special deals to entice winter visitors, but most are anticipating a quiet couple of months.
In the summer that followed the Waldo Canyon fire, which left small businesses hurting from lack of tourists, some local business owners began to think it was time to poke the sleeping bear and awaken a Pikes Peak region winter tourism campaign. After all, other Colorado towns and attractions have done it.
“This has been an ongoing theme,” said Steve Ducoff, Pikes Peak Lodging Association executive director. “We are always looking for ways to promote the shoulder and winter time.”
Leaders of the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau don’t believe they get a good return on efforts to market winter tourism. Instead, they spend their annual $900,000 marketing budget trying to attract summer tourists. City records show that February and March are the weakest months of the year for Lodgers and Auto Rental Tax (LART) collections.
“We usually launch leisure campaigns in April,” said Chelsy Murphy, Colorado Springs CVB public relations manager. “We have a very limited budget. We have to maximize dollars at the correct time.”
The CVB will print more than a half-million 2013 visitor guides in February and then begin its marketing campaigns to lure visitors to the Pikes Peak region this summer.
“If we had a bigger budget — and I’m not complaining — if we spread the budget any thinner, we would do summer an injustice,” said Amy Long, CVB vice president of marketing and membership.
What makes more sense for the CVB is spending money on attracting groups and conventions for the off-season, Long said.
In January, the CVB will send a representative to two national trade shows in an effort to get Colorado Springs on the radar for more conventions and tours. Those can help carry the city through what is known as the shoulder season — the months just before and just after high summer season.
Skiing in Colorado is the big winter draw, said Steve Kaverman, Royal Gorge Route Railroad general manager and Colorado Tourism Office board member. The ski industry pumps about $2.8 billion a year into the state’s economy.
“So, naturally a lot of money and attention goes to supporting that industry,” he said.
But when snowfall is light, ski season can turn to slush quickly. And in the case of the Pikes Peak region, a fire at the start of summer tourism season can devastate the local tourism industry, Kaverman said.
“Look at this weather — maybe relying on the snow in the winter is not a great idea,” Kaverman said of the prolonged drought conditions. “The Colorado Tourism Office is looking at their effort as marketing the state as a year-round process. Colorado has made its financial mistakes about putting all its eggs in one basket.”
Seven years ago, the Cañon City-based Royal Gorge Route Railroad took winter season into its own hands, Kaverman said. The train ride, along the Arkansas River, launched the Santa Express Train, a series of restored mid-century locomotives decorated in holiday lights. Children are encouraged to wear pajamas and listen to stories told by “Santa’s elves.”
“It’s gone from 2,000 passengers to 20,000 — we’ve created something that is delightful,” Kaverman said. “For us, we are always looking for something new with the railroad.”
The Colorado Springs LART records are an indication of winter’s lag. In February the city collected $178,513 — the lowest amount — compared with July when the city had its best month, collecting $494,570. Ducoff said it’s time for Colorado Springs to think of itself as a winter destination. He is a proponent of creating winter events that could draw visitors.
“Let’s create our own — arts, sports — something we can own and operate,” he said. “We can start our own tradition — something you can do even if it snows.”
Ski towns have been reinventing their marketing schemes for the past five years, said Jennifer Rudolph, Colorado Ski Country USA communications director. The ski industry is weather-dependent and sometimes Mother Nature does not deliver.
“Towns and resorts are getting more creative the way they market themselves during the off-season,” she said. “While Ski Country primarily focuses on promoting winter tourism, each year we do more and more with regard to summer, especially as resorts continue to evolve as year-around destinations.”
Denver tourism officials, after seeing carloads of people driving from Denver International Airport right past their city to the ski towns, started getting aggressive about trying to keep them. Nine years ago, Denver CVB, known as Visit Denver, launched a $1 million annual Mile High Holidays campaign that goes into 24 markets. About 45 hotels are participating, offering rooms for $52.80 a night, and the Mile High Holidays website lists 200 events through January.
“It came about because this is a slower time for Denver,” said Deborah Park, Visit Denver associate director of communications. “We know people go skiing. We want to take advantage of those coming through and give them a reason to come to Denver and stay a night.”
Colorado is often listed in the top four places people want to visit. But it’s not always in the top four destinations where tourists actually do visit. That means creating winter events with limited engagement that will move people to book their trip instead of just dream about it, Park said.
In Denver, the CVB has partnered with museums and hotels to create package deals. For example, they put together packages that include VIP passes to the hot-selling Becoming Van Gogh exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, running now to Jan. 20, with special hotel room rates.
“What we are trying to do is fill up those times that are not busy,” Park said. “And that is the challenge.”
The state is picking up on the year-round messaging, Park said.
“They know it’s not just about skiing all winter,” she said. “There is culinary, snowshoeing and the beer scene — there are so many angles. They know they can’t ignore certain parts of the state at certain times.”
Colorado Springs used to be a summer hot spot, said Sallie Clark, county commissioner and owner of the Holden House bed-and-breakfast in Old Colorado City. She didn’t have to work as hard to fill the inn and could focus her advertising dollars on the shoulders and off-season to pump up those months. Now she has to work just as hard to get summer visitors, she said.
“Years ago, the Pikes Peak region was so well known for summer that by the time someone called in March we were sold out for May and June,” Clark said. “I had months that were 100-percent occupancy — that hasn’t happened for many years.”
The lethargic economy, coupled with the capability to make travel arrangements instantly on the Internet, make for last-minute bookings. And now Colorado ski towns are competing for summer visitors.
Clark uses the Internet and posts videos and blogs plus weekly or monthly specials on Facebook. She believes there could be more of a state and regional effort to draw winter visitors to non-ski destinations.
“I absolutely think there should be more of a focus on pushing the holiday season,” Clark said. “The (Colorado Springs) CVB mostly does a summer marketing piece. I think they need a calendar all year long.”
For now, Clark counts down the off-season with special deals until summer — Valentine’s Day, Spring Break and Memorial Day.
“We lost our two best months this year,” she said of the fire’s impact. “When you lose even a month of revenue it’s hard to make it up in the shoulder. Even if the shoulder season is good, it’s still not as good as regular high season.
“I hope the state of Colorado will try to promote a really strong spring, summer and fall of next year, to get advanced planning, so we don’t fall further behind.”
Kaverman says local destinations will have to find ways to partner and make winter tourism happen, like the Royal Gorge Route Railroad’s winter program that has attracted thousands. He met this month with operators of Royal Gorge Zip Line Tours about their continued winter tours.
“One of the big themes is ‘come outside,’” Kaverman said. “Colorado Tourism Office is putting that online and in print ads — that is the message that people need to get in this region.
“From Colorado Tourism Office, we are definitely going to continue to look for ways to get the message out that Colorado is a year-around destination — if you are not skiing, there is a long list of things to do.”