Amid gas-price worries, Springs attractions hope for the best

ANDREW WINEKE Updated: May 6, 2011 at 12:00 am • Published: May 6, 2011

Balancing atop a single strand of rope, 70 feet over Williams Canyon? That doesn’t bother Grant Carey. But $5 a gallon for gas? $6? That terrifies him.

Carey, the general manager of Cave of the Winds, spent $250,000 this winter adding the Wind Walker Challenge Course outside the cave’s visitor center. The course is a challenge for nerves and nimbleness: Picture a 3-story-tall Erector Set on which patrons scramble around like spider monkeys (while connected to a harness system that can be released only when they’re safely back on the ground).

With the economic recovery creeping ahead and people more in a spending mood, Carey hopes the attraction will help draw visitors from all over. But if worst comes to worst for gas prices, he hopes that at least a lot of local folks will give Cave of the Winds a fresh look.

“We’re definitely concerned about the upswing in gas prices,” Carey said. “When gas was predicted to get to $4 a gallon, I was willing to be optimistic. But now that people are talking about $6 ...”

That general sense of optimism leavened with a note of concern about gas prices is the rule as local attractions and hotels prepare for the start of what they hope will be a busy tourist season this summer.

“Gas is something that people are going to pay attention to,” said Michele Carvell, executive director of the Pikes Peak Country Attractions Association. “It is a bit of a shock when you fill up your tank and it’s $60.”

With oil prices falling sharply in the past week, there’s hope that gas prices have peaked. In the meantime, to ease the pain at the pump, many local hotels are offering discounts or specials — Experience Colorado Springs, the local convention and visitors bureau, has built a campaign around the theme “Tank Full of Summer Savings,” and has a gas calculator on its website, www.visitcos.com, that lets travelers figure out what a trip will cost in terms of gas.

“We’re 85 percent drive, so we do have to keep it in mind all the time,” said Chelsy Murphy, public relations manager for Experience Colorado Springs, referring to the percentage of tourists who drive rather than fly to the area.

“When you really do the math, coming from Texas or Oklahoma, it’s really only an extra couple hundred dollars,” she said. “We’re still very affordable.”

The last time gas prices were this high was the summer of 2008 when the nearly $4-a-gallon gas put a significant dent in the summer tourism season, according to local industry leaders.

The silver lining, however, is that $4 may not have the same psychological punch today that it did then.

“I think we have adjusted,” Carvell said. “There was a time when we hit $3 a gallon a few years ago and we were ‘Oh my gosh, $3 a gallon, what are we going to do?’”

While there’s some foreboding, the statistics for the year so far are looking good. Hotel occupancy rates have been up in 12 of the past 13 months, although average room rates have been flat or slightly down. Colorado Springs’ lodgers and auto-rental tax was up 5.1 percent in 2010 compared with 2009, and collections are up 4.1 percent in 2011, through the end of March.

“I don’t feel comfortable in saying that we have turned the tide, (but) there’s great promise we’ll see further stabilization,” said John Branciforte, director of sales at Cheyenne Mountain Resort.

Cheyenne Mountain Resort just completed a $20 million remodel, including more than $8 million spent giving all 316 guest rooms total makeovers. The face-lift is giving the resort an edge as it competes for meetings and leisure bookings, Branciforte said.

“It’s a great talking point,” he said. “When people look at it, the physical product is now in line with the (resort’s) four-diamond status.”

Up the street at The Broadmoor, vice president of sales and marketing John Washko said business is coming back from the recession, but it’s not all the way there yet.

“We’re certainly not back to the prime days from either occupancy or rate of 2007 or 2008,” he said. “We’re going to be better than we were in ’10.”

The Broadmoor will host the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open Championship from July 4 to 10. The event creates a lot of demand for rooms during its run, Washko said, but it’s also a lot of work for the resort and interrupts the golf experience for ordinary guests before and after the competition. The real payoff, he said, is the attention a national event brings to The Broadmoor and to Colorado Springs.

“Sometimes you have to take half a step back to take two steps forward,” Washko said. “The exposure that you get from hosting a major championship, that benefits The Broadmoor and the destination for years to come.”

On the other end of the city, Ed Ellsworth, owner and general manager of the Hampton Inn near the Air Force Academy, said 2011 is already shaping up to be the hotel’s strongest year since it opened in 2007.

“A lot of our summer travel season is already filling up with group business,” he said. “We are seeing more corporate travel. With the economy improving, some of the corporations are spending more on travel they may have postponed in the past.”

Call the writer at 636-0275

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