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Good summer forecast for Colorado Springs tourism industry despite headwinds

May 24, 2018 Updated: May 25, 2018 at 12:02 pm
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People watch the runners cross the finish line from the Cog Railway as over 1,000 participated in the Pikes Peak Ascent on Saturday, August 19, 2017 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

This year promises to be one "that holds both opportunities and challenges," states the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau's annual report, released this spring.

And both are clearly on display this summer. The absence of one of the area's star attractions, and rising gas prices, are among the challenges as the local tourism industry enters the critical summer season. But Doug Price, president and CEO of the CVB, can also point to many positives, including a strong economy and the return of the U.S. Senior Open to The Broadmoor.

Still, he acknowledges, "it's going to be a different kind of summer" - particularly when it comes to getting to the top of America's Mountain.

In March, The Broadmoor announced that the Broadmoor Pikes Peak Cog Railway would not reopen this spring after months of maintenance - and could remain closed for up to three years while its fate is studied. Ultimately, the aging railroad could be rebuilt - or never reopen.

That closure was expected to increase traffic on the Pikes Peak Highway, from just under 500,000 last year to 650,000 to 700,000 this year. Except that the highway is having its own issues, with construction expected to start in early June on the $50 million Pikes Peak Summit Complex. That construction, says Jack Glavan, manager of Pikes Peak - America's Mountain, "will take away half of the parking."

Riders plummet 200 feet into Williams Canyon at speeds of 100 MPH on opening day of Cave of the Wind's newest attraction, the Terror-Dactyl, Thursday, July 17, 2014. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette  

As a result, Pikes Peak - America's Mountain, an enterprise division of the city of Colorado Springs, is mandating shuttle service for the summer to transport visitors to the top. Visitors will pay the usual summer rates for traveling the highway, but won't pay extra for the shuttle service.

People will still be able to drive the highway - just not to the summit. The shuttle service's 15-passenger vans will pick up visitors at parking lots at the 7-mile and 16-mile markers and take them the rest of the way. Vehicles carrying persons with mobility disabilities or children in car seats are exceptions to the shuttle mandate.

The goal is to keep shuttle wait times to under 10 minutes. "We're trying to get everybody to the summit with as least inconvenience as we can," Glavan says.

The shuttles are unable to accommodate pets and bicycles. On the plus side, Glavan says, "some drivers don't get to sightsee as much and now they will, so a lot of people may enjoy it."

The enterprise division is working to get the word out in various ways, including social media. "We're hopefully going to capture most of the visitors who want to come to the Pikes Peak region." Glavan says.

Educating people on the options for getting to the top of Pikes Peak will be "a massive communications job," Price says. Area attractions and businesses need to know that message too, he says. Say someone sits down at a restaurant and asks about the Cog Railway and are simply told it is closed. "If that's all the message that's going out," Price says, "that's a problem."

The closure of the Cog Railway will no doubt have a ripple effect on shops and other attractions in Manitou Springs.

A car drives up the road to Pikes Peak while the Pikes Peak Cog Railway climbs up behind it on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. (The Gazette, Nadav Soroker) 

"We have already seen some of that effect," says Tim Haas, president of TAT Enterprises, which owns the Garden of the Gods Trading Post on the edge of Garden of the Gods Park, along with four businesses in Manitou and one in Old Colorado City. "We are fortunate enough to have a lot of bus groups that stop by the Trading Post and have lunch, for example, before they go and take the Cog, and we have had multiple cancellations already."

Construction in the area and continued closure of the Park Avenue bridge, which has significantly cut into parking, are other issues, Haas says. Manitou plans improvements to ease congestion in the town this summer, including using traffic management coordinators to direct motorists to available parking.

Despite the challenges, Haas is positive about the summer. "People, I think, are confident in the economy, they're spending money, they're traveling." In the end, minus a catastrophic wildfire or a world-rattling event, "I think it's going to be a really strong year," he says.

Ann Miller, operations manager of Cave of the Winds in Manitou, is also optimistic.

"We're hoping it has no effect on us," she says of the Cog Railway's closure. "We don't believe it's going to."

With all of the amenities Cave of the Winds has added in recent years, such as the Wind Walker Challenge Course, the aerial Bat-a-Pult and the Terror-Dactyl ride, the attraction is not an adjunct to a Cog Railway experience but stands on its own, Miller says.

"We're trying to go for more of a spend-the-day experience instead of just coming for a tour. We're not a tour anymore, we're more like a theme park."

Two more additions are coming to Cave of the Winds this summer: a virtual reality ride and a via ferrata, a climbing experience. (Via ferrata is Italian for "iron path.")

Broadmoor's big year

The summer starts with gas prices nearing $3 a gallon, the highest in years. Those rising prices have crimped travel plans this summer as more Americans are planning staycations instead of hitting the road, says GasBuddy's 2018 Summer Travel survey. According to the survey, 58 percent said they'll take a road trip this summer, a 24 percent decrease from last year.

But AAA Colorado doesn't see higher prices deterring travelers. AAA predicts nearly 760,000 Coloradans will be taking to the roads and skies this holiday weekend - a 6 percent increase over last year and the most in more than a dozen years. "Plain and simple, people just aren't worried about pump prices," AAA Colorado spokesman Skyler McKinley said in a news release.

Price says he's not overly concerned, noting that area prices remain under the national average - and that they're nowhere near the level they were during the gas crisis of 2008, when hotels would advertise free tanks of gas for registered guests. "I think we're going to be fine," he says.

And car travel isn't the only option. Price points to increased passenger traffic at the Colorado Springs Airport, an increase largely fueled by new Frontier flights; outgoing passenger numbers hit a seven-year high last year, up 29.3 percent from 2016,

"The fact that most of the flights that have been added are low cost is good because it fits the family market that we go after, so that's going to help us considerably this summer," Price says. "I'm not suggesting that more people will fly here than drive here. We will always be a regional drive destination. But having a regional airport that's going to probably do more than 2 million passengers this year, that's great for us."

The U.S. Senior Open returns to The Broadmoor this summer. Photo by Bill Radford, The Gazette 

Another plus, Price says, is The Broadmoor's continuing centennial celebration - and its hosting of the U.S. Senior Open during the peak of that celebration. (The Broadmoor is owned by the Denver-based Anschutz Corp., whose Clarity Media Group owns The Gazette.)

"We're going to have a very good year," says Jack Damioli, president and CEO of The Broadmoor. While June 29 marks a century since The Broadmoor's official opening, the resort isn't celebrating its birthday with a single party, but with a different event each month, Damioli notes. Among those events: a Centennial Gala Weekend on June 1-3, coming 100 years since Spencer Penrose held a special VIP opening for the hotel. As of mid-May, that weekend was "booking very, very nicely," Damioli says.

Meanwhile, ticket sales for the U.S. Senior Open, June 25-July 1, are pacing ahead of the 2008 Senior Open at The Broadmoor, which welcomed 129,000 fans for the week, says Douglas Habgood, Senior Open executive director. "We also surpassed the overall total in ticket sales for the 2017 U.S. Senior Open in Boston back in December of last year," Habgood said in an email.

There are several reasons why this Senior Open is such a hot ticket, Habgood says, including The Broadmoor's centennial celebration, the presence of John Elway as honorary chair and the fact that there has not been a major professional golf event in Colorado since the BMW Championship at Cherry Hills in 2014.

While this summer is just getting underway, Price is already thinking of next summer, which will see the loss of another key attraction: The Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel, hailed as Colorado's most visited man-made tourist attraction, will close at the end of 2018 for up to four years for repairs. Between that and the Cog Railway, "those are two iconic attractions for us," Price says. But a new attraction is on the horizon: The U.S. Olympic Museum, being constructed downtown, is expected to open in 2019.

"We have to let people know what they can do," Price says, "rather than emphasizing the two things they can't do."

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