Hefner works her way up Cliff Dwellings’ ladder

1On1-Michelle-HefnerCCMichele Hefner has spent half her life working at the Manitou Springs Cliff Dwellings. Now the general manager, Hefner, 39, ruminated recently with the Business Journal about her 20 years working at the popular tourist attraction west of Colorado Springs.

How did you arrive at becoming manager of the attraction?

Going to college, I got a job here as a sales clerk. I stuck around working full-time and going to school full-time to part-time. Probably about two years into being here, I was made the store manager. I just nurtured what we have here. After I was here four years, I was named general manager. That was the title the owner gave to me. I had a hand in a lot of the day-to-day operations, aside from handling the employees at the gift shop and the gift shop and everything that entails.

How do you market a treasure like the Cliff Dwellings? 

There’s obviously a lot of different options for that. The trends are changing a lot, and much of that is social media, Facebook and the like. We’re part of an association called the Pikes Peak Country Attractions. We were one of the original members of the association when it started in the 1970s. The bulk of our marketing is through the association, with the magazine we produce along with the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Colorado Springs Visitors Guide.

What are the trends in tourism?

People are using their personal devices — their cell phones or their tablets — to access information. We’re seeing those things trending based on the traffic we’re getting. People will show us a coupon on their phone, rather than a paper coupon.

What sales have you seen in recent years and what factors influence those? 

We usually average between 100,000 and 125,000 visitors every year. It just depends on the year, what’s going on out in the world, what are the base prices, what’s the economy like — it trends with those things. In 2008-2009 we definitely felt a lot of that. At that point, gas prices went up, so people’s traveling changed. We’re now seeing more in-state people. We’ve been averaging $900,000 to $1 million in annual sales, and the same with ticket sales, so in total, we do about $2 million.

“This year, we’re trending with numbers we saw in 2010, 2011.”

What trends have you seen over the years in the gift shop?

Some people are looking for a very special remembrance of their trip. Now when people are flying, they don’t have the same luggage capacity they once had. We’re either shipping things for them so they don’t have to worry about how they’re going to handle getting it home, or we’re buying smaller gifts so they’re easier to transport back. It’s not necessarily a matter of their budget, but the ease of them being able to bring that item back home.

Explain the issues that have recently influenced traffic?

The amount of business we’ve done in the past 10 years has stayed pretty steady. You have those years where you’re down a little bit, and then you have a year to follow up that can be really strong. The year of the Waldo Canyon fire, we were closed for 10 days during our busiest two weeks of the year. That definitely affects our bottom line right off the top. It wasn’t like we came back after the fire to 100 percent of where we were at. It took a while for it to build back up.

This year, we’re trending with numbers we saw in 2010, 2011, which were what I consider strong years. They were years where we saw the 125,000 visitors as opposed to the 100,000 visitors. Three days ago, we were closed because we had to do a cleanup after the mud slide. You don’t close in the middle of your busy season, but we had to. It was such a mess up here. Our staff was awesome. We were all out here muddy and dirty and working very hard to make it happen. I was really impressed at how everyone came together and created such a good team. They were still smiling at the end of the day. They were having … not fun, but they still were laughing and enjoying each other and doing their work.

Explain how your job changed significantly in 2008-2009. 

Tom Rogers, the owner, passed away. In 2008, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He had been a very healthy person — like the Energizer Bunny. They’re [Rogers and his wife] our family. Two months before he passed away, he brought my husband on. My husband and I have been running it since August 2009.

What do you find most difficult about your job?

Maybe our dedication to this place makes it hard to get away from it. That would be the most difficult thing, but at the same time, it’s what we do and we love what we do.

When you do get away, what do you do?

Fly fishing. We like to enjoy Colorado. We’ll do a four-wheel drive trail, or hike and go fishing. We try to spend as much time as we can outdoors. It’s a nice relief to exercise your brain in a different way.