Springs-area attractions investing in big improvements for tourists

Elephant-1Colorado Springs area attractions and tourist destinations have invested, or plan to invest, almost $134 million in improvements this year.

The Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau reached out to its members to find out what they had planned. The results provided an impressive list of local attractions planning to invest anywhere from tens of thousands to $90 million in their properties, as the CVB shared at its annual business meeting earlier this month.

“After talking about the fire last year and our Welcome Back campaign, we really wanted to showcase everything these attractions are doing and the way they’re investing in the season and in the future,” said Chelsy Murphy, director of communications for the CVB.

The CVB has not historically collected data from members about how much they invest in their properties each year to improve facilities. But Doug Price, CVB president and CEO, said he felt strongly that local tourism businesses were doing more this year than they had in the past several years.

“I can say for sure that the economy has kept a number of our members kind of on the sidelines, and they haven’t been able to make these kinds of investments,” Price said.

The CVB presented investment figures to the public, announcing big-dollar improvements like the $90 million worth of upgrades to The Broadmoor and the $13.5 million Encounter Africa exhibit at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

“All these improvements help us tell a new and better story about all the new things there are to see and do in Colorado Springs,” Price said. “And I think it means our members have the confidence to make significant investments. It improves our visitor experience.”

Improvements

Among the big investments was more than $22.5 million in improvements at the Colorado Springs Airport, which includes the new Bristol Brewing Co. bar, aesthetic enhancements and security upgrades, Murphy said.

The Pikes Peak Highway added a new toll gate and ranger station for $250,000.

Royal Gorge Bridge and Park is spending $50,000 on a new children’s playground, complete with state-of-the-art equipment like a child-size maze and a 76-foot simulated cave crawl.

Garden of the Gods Campground and RV Park is investing more than $800,000 in upgrades.

“These are just the investments that we know our members are making,” Murphy said. “There are probably even more that we don’t know about.”

The stories of attractions and their projects differ as much as the attractions themselves.

The Broadmoor

Since Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz purchased the company that owns The Broadmoor in late 2011, he has been investing in property improvements.

“Right now we’re on Phase One of a two-year renovation,” said Dennis Lesko, marketing manager for The Broadmoor. The first phase has concentrated on enhancing the hotel’s dining options. Its newest restaurant, Play, includes six lanes of bowling and menu items including milkshakes.

Lesko said part of the aim of the new restaurant is to bring more locals into the hotel for dining and entertainment.

“It has become very popular very quickly,” he said.

The Broadmoor also expanded its Golden Bee, adding 50 indoor seats and 80 patio seats, which more than triples the capacity of the restaurant and bar.

Inside the main hotel, the Tavern was also remodeled and now includes a French bistro-style addition called Le Jardin that features a 16-foot chandelier centerpiece. All the new dining, along with Emerald Valley Ranch — 10 luxury cabins set eight miles into the mountains above the resort, designed to offer an off-the-beaten-path, woodsy experience for guests — will improve the resort’s attractiveness to convention visitors and bring more local traffic to The Broadmoor, Lesko said.

Starting in the fall, the hotel will close its West Building and begin extensive renovations on it, updating rooms and turning its Charles Court restaurant into one that will be known for upscale Italian fare.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

When the zoo opened its big Encounter Africa exhibit earlier this month, a lot of visitors might not have known that the $13.5 million exhibit only represents about a third of the money the zoo has invested in permanent improvements over the past eight years, said Bob Chastain, president and CEO of the zoo. The elephants, meerkats, lions and year-round alligators that visitors will soon enjoy are all part of a larger plan to continue growing zoo attendance, Chastain said.

The zoo funds its operations with revenue from admissions and uses donor funds to make improvements. It’s one of just about 10 zoos among the 220 nationally accredited zoos that don’t receive tax funding.

Chastain noticed after the zoo opened its new giraffe exhibit in 2003 that visitor numbers increased, but immediately dropped off again.

“We kept making small improvements,” he said, “and we started to hear people say, ‘Every time I come to the zoo, I see something new.’”

That’s when zoo administration decided to stop investing in traveling exhibits and instead continue putting money into reasonably priced permanent improvements.

“We’ve been passionately pursuing that goal ever since 2008,” Chastain said, “and it has paid off.”

Zoo numbers climbed at a rate of 20,000 to 50,000 a year until the total attendance hit a record high of 607,000 two years ago. That number slipped last year, which Chastain credits directly to the Waldo Canyon fire.

The zoo was ranked among the top 10 zoos in the country by TripAdvisor last year.

“That’s pretty impressive,” Chastain said. “That puts us in the same breath as the San Diego Zoo.”

As long as the zoo keeps investing, he said, he expects visitor numbers and national recognition will continue to grow.

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

The monument has a new $2.5 million Visitor and Nature Center. It’s a state-of-the-art Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold-certified facility, which means it’s one of the greenest buildings in the region.

Florissant Fossil Beds administrators and volunteers have been fighting for more than 40 years to get a visitors center for the area, which is managed by the National Park Service, said Jeff Wolin, lead interpreter for the fossil beds.

He said the monument was able a few years ago to get money for plans, which just happened to be ready when the Parks Service released its line-item construction budget and started looking for shovel-ready projects last year. The new facility provides space for researchers along with a big information center that Wolin is filling this month with fossils and exhibits.

“We’re going from 96 square feet of exhibit space to 870 square feet,” Wolin said.

The new visitors center and exhibits have inspired the monument staff to reach out and work on promoting it more to local organizations like the Woodland Park Chamber of Commerce and area schools.

Wolin said the addition of the new center and the excitement that comes with it could boost visitor numbers considerably from their current 60,000 a year.

“I feel really proud and happy to have such a nice building for our visitors,” Wolin said.

Echo Canyon River Expeditions

The CVB reported that this Cañon City whitewater rafting outfitter has invested $35,000 in its new facility this year.

“That’s peanuts,” said owner Andy Neinas.

He says he actually has invested more than $2 million in his facility over the past two years. And the investment has fundamentally changed his revenue stream. After 13 years as the owner of the rafting company, he built a shiny new building with nice changing rooms, lobby area, and a restaurant-bar seating 200.

“Very plainly, I think the consumer public has more and more expectations,” Neinas said. “Whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re seeking more amenities.”

But it’s not just about being more competitive. It’s also about generating a new revenue stream.

The restaurant and bar make it easier for guests to hang out. It has allowed Neinas to create an après-rafting culture that encourages continued spending in the same way après-ski has in mountain town bars and restaurants for years.

“It’s all about capturing that discretionary dollar,” he said.

His cost to get customers through his door is high, Neinas said. He spends a lot on media and marketing campaigns.

“Once people are here, the only reason they leave is because they run out of things to do and see,” Neinas said. “They’re obviously going to eat before or after they raft with us. So now they can do it here.”

He said future expansion plans include adding lodging options.

Miramont Castle

The Manitou Springs Historical Society received a matching grant from the Colorado Historical Society that will allow the Manitou organization to make a $60,000 investment in the exterior stonework of the Miramont Castle building.

“The elements have taken their toll,” said Peggie Yager, treasurer for the Manitou Historical Society.

The society bought the castle in 1976 and has carefully preserved it since then, collecting revenue for the castle’s upkeep from admissions, tea-room sales, special events and donations.

About 24,000 visitors go through the castle each year. The stonework improvements probably won’t attract new guests, Yager said, but they will preserve the castle so visitors can continue to tour it safely for years to come.

Iron Springs Chateau

Two couples with long histories working at the Iron Springs Chateau Melodrama Dinner Theater in Manitou Springs bought the business in January.

“We absolutely love it and couldn’t reconcile with the idea of it closing down,” said Rebekah Ratterree, one of the new owners.

The former owners wanted to retire, she said.

Ratterree and her partners have invested $10,000 in updating the kitchen so a chef can prepare the dinner theater food to order. In the past, meals had to be premade.

The new owners want to tackle a lot of projects over the next 10 years, Ratterree said. But the kitchen was the most pressing. She said she expects visitor numbers to climb from an average of 7,000 a year to about 10,000 a year as the once-seasonal business will now be open year-round.

Making progress

The following members of the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau have made or plan to make significant capital investments this year.

Attraction Investment
The Broadmoor $90 million
Airport upgrades/additions $22.5 million
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Encounter Africa $13.5 million
Cheyenne Mountain Resort golf course $3.8 million
Florissant Fossil Beds Visitor & Nature Center $2.5 million
Garden of the Gods Campground & RV Park $800,000
Pikes Peak Gateway Phase II $250,000
Miramont Castle Restoration $60,000
Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, new play park $50,000
Echo Canyon Rafting Expeditions $35,000
Iron Springs Chateau $10,000
May Museum Gift Shop $8,000