Tourism ready to battle for more state funds

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Even now, seven months later, talking about the effects that the Waldo Canyon fire had on the region’s tourism industry makes voices shake.

“Devastating” is how most in the industry — from operators of bed-and-breakfast inns to local attractions, hotels and restaurants — describe that last week of June that dropped Pikes Peak regional tourism to its knees.

Now catching their breath, Pikes Peak tourism leaders are counting on state-level efforts to help the region.

“I think as long as we can convince state lawmakers to keep those dollars flowing to tourism, we will be strong,” said Michele Starling, Pikes Peak Country Attractions executive director.

On Jan. 29, Starling plans to bend the ear of lawmakers during Colorado Tourism Day 2013 at the state Capitol, where about 100 folks in the tourism industry will have legislators all to themselves for half a day. Doug Price, Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO, is hoping to fill a tour bus with locals to head up for the event.

“With the summer of 2012, we have to make sure they understand that anything they can do for fire mitigation is important to promote the whole state,” Price said.

Lawmakers are expected to tackle some hot topics in this session, from gun control to civil unions and marijuana, and they have a projected $8.1 billion budget to divvy up. Those who rely on the 55 million visitors coming to the state each year don’t want tourism funding to be overlooked.

“They need to understand what the return to the state is,” said Al White, Colorado Tourism Office director. With more money we get more reach and frequency — if you hear it seven times, you might remember it.”

White is going into the Legislature, dukes up, asking for a $15 million state tourism budget in fiscal year 2014 — an increase over this year’s $13.3 million budget. Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed FY 2014 budget endorses the added $2 million, which includes spending $500,000 on a state “unified branding platform.”

But spending on tourism, which includes marketing and advertising campaigns, is not a sure thing with all lawmakers. Last year, a state Joint Budget Committee analyst had tourism on the ropes, recommending cutting the tourism budget to $9 million.

Mark Waller, House minority leader, said he has not seen the details of the FY 2014 proposed tourism budget increase, and lawmakers will be dealing with some big ticket items, such as the Governor’s proposal to expand Medicaid by 160,000 recipients, which would cost an estimated $128 million over 10 years. But, tourism, he said, should be viewed as a top economic driver and top industry in the state.

“I think we’ve always made tourism a funding priority in Colorado,” Waller said. “Tourism did suffer some cuts in the last few years but we worked hard to restore those.”

In 2012, the CTO spent $4.5 million on its “Come to Life” TV and print advertising campaign that ran for three months in Dallas, Chicago and Phoenix. White said visitors who responded to the ad campaign spent $898 million in the state, according to the Strategic Marketing and Research Group that surveyed Colorado visitors.

White argues that when visitors come, they spend money on transportation, lodging, food, retail shops and recreation — $9.3 billion in 2011, according to Longwoods International, a travel and tourism research firm.

“Yes, you invest $15 million, but you get back tourism dollars,” White said. “It does get tough when the (state) budget is down and lawmakers have to weigh those dollars very carefully.”

The state has to spend money to make money, said Sallie Clark, El Paso County commissioner and owner of Holden House Bed & Breakfast Inn. Back in the early 1990s, Colorado learned the hard way when slashing the tourism budget to zero yielded the same in visitors. By 2005, the state’s tourism budget was up to $15 million, then it was cut in 2011 to $12 million.

“It’s encouraging to hear (CTO) is asking for more money in the wake of Waldo — it absolutely makes sense, and I mean ‘cents,’” said Clark, who serves on the board of the Bed and Breakfast Innkeepers of Colorado. “Right now it’s most important for Colorado as a state to help us recover from the disasters in order to compete with other states.”

Colorado Springs’ Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax collections for 2012 paint the picture: down 16.41 percent in August, 4.3 percent in September, and 7.89 percent in October from the same months in 2011. Manitou Springs’ sales tax collections were down 9.3 percent in June, 7.2 percent in July, and 6.7 percent in August from the same months in 2011.

“This was the worst summer I’ve had as director [of Pikes Peak Country Attractions] — that includes the Hayman fire and 9/11 — I’ve never seen attendance plummet so quickly or stay that low,” Starling said.

Included in the state tourism budget is grant money for specific regional programs. In September, the Colorado Springs CVB received $10,000 from the Colorado Tourism Office’s Regional Grant Program to help with post-fire marketing efforts.

There is nowhere for Pikes Peak regional tourism to go but up, Starling said.

“We will be in really good position to make our case for vacationing in the Pikes Peak region,” she said. “We’ll come out like gangbusters.”