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New state tourism director gets a taste of Colorado Springs during three-day visit

January 22, 2016 Updated: January 22, 2016 at 4:24 pm
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photo - Cathy Ritter, who was named director of the Colorado Tourism Office in November, spoke with about 25 business, government and tourism officials Thursday in Colorado Springs. RICH LADEN, THE GAZETTE
Cathy Ritter, who was named director of the Colorado Tourism Office in November, spoke with about 25 business, government and tourism officials Thursday in Colorado Springs. RICH LADEN, THE GAZETTE  

As the new director of Colorado's tourism office, Cathy Ritter might seem to have the easiest job in state government.

After all, Colorado's parks, mountains, ski resorts, hiking trails, scenery, attractions and restaurants sell themselves. So, Ritter and her staff need to do little more than hand out road maps to throngs of visitors, right?

Not hardly. Promoting Colorado is a full-time job that requires strategic planning and sophisticated marketing beyond just making sure the state's "Colorful Colorado" signs remain standing.

"Colorado tried that experiment once, in 1993," Ritter said. "They eliminated all funding for Colorado promotion based on the belief that, 'why are we promoting? People will come here anyway'."

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State officials found visitor spending dropped 30 percent in that first year and travel to Colorado eroded thereafter, Ritter said.

"There is a true connection between promoting a state and generating visitor traffic," she said.

Ritter, named tourism director in November by Gov. John Hickenlooper, spoke Thursday to two dozen Colorado Springs-area business people, tourism officials and lawmakers - part of a three-day visit to the Pikes Peak region. Her trip included stops at the Olympic Training Center, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Air Force Academy, Cripple Creek Heritage Center and Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, among other attractions.

Ritter, who has a journalism background, was Illinois' tourism director from 1999 to 2003. She then was a travel and tourism consultant, and worked as a marketing and communications executive with senior housing and assistance organizations.

In July, she and her husband moved to Denver to be near their daughter. That's when Ritter saw the state was seeking a replacement for former tourism director Al White.

Here are some highlights of Ritter's comments during her talk Thursday and in an interview with The Gazette:

- Colorado still has work to do to attract visitors. Research shows Colorado ranks fifth or sixth among states when survey respondents are asked to name their dream destinations. Yet, the state is 17th in terms of attracting visitors.

Additional funding for state tourism and local groups such as the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau could help close that gap, she said. Meanwhile, Ritter said she's poised to oppose a legislative proposal that would divert gaming tax revenues away from tourism.

- A national spring and summer advertising campaign last year helped attract an additional 2.1 million trips to Colorado, which boosted visitor spending in the state by $2.6 billion.

In general, how big is tourism? In 2014, a record 71.3 million Colorado visitors spent $18.6 billion, generated $1.1 billion in tax revenues and supported more than 155,000 jobs, Ritter said. "There is a case for why tourism investment is a profit center for this state," she said.

- Ritter wants to develop a three-year strategic plan - with the aid of a consultant - to promote Colorado's tourism industry. That effort will involve a statewide listening tour and town hall meetings to gather input from travel officials, business people and anybody who has a stake in tourism.

- She wants to explore whether the tourism office should consider an in-state campaign to encourage residents to visit Colorado's many attractions.

- While there's still much that's unknown about the impact the legalization of recreational marijuana has had on tourism, some research suggests it's a "ho-hum" issue. Surveys show 62 percent of travelers say the availability of recreational marijuana doesn't influence them positively or negatively about coming to Colorado, she said.

The state should consider doing more to educate tourists about perceptions related to Colorado's recreational marijuana law. Such an effort wouldn't promote marijuana-based travel; it's illegal to do so, and research shows marijuana usage is compelling only to a small percentage of travelers, she said.

But the state might want to consider including information on its website to alert tourists to what they might expect - such as that marijuana use is illegal in public places.

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Contact Rich Laden: 636-0228

Twitter: @richladen

Facebook: Rich Laden

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