The temperatures might be heating up in the Pikes Peak region as summer approaches, but will the area's tourism industry sizzle as well?
It depends whom you ask. Some tourism industry officials are forecasting a flat year at best, but others are more optimistic that an improving national economy and lower gasoline prices - down nearly 20 cents from a year ago - will bring more visitors to the Colorado Springs area.
Doug Price, CEO of the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, expects a flat year, primarily because several area attractions hit hard by recent natural disasters, including Seven Falls and the Royal Gorge Bridge, will remain closed for much or all of the year.
On top of that, The Broadmoor hotel shut down more than 20 percent of its rooms in November for a major remodeling project. Although the rooms reopened Friday, the six-month closure will likely dampen overall tourism numbers for the year.
"All of those developments will have an impact on 2014 and make it difficult for the industry to increase revenue from last year. I would be pleasantly surprised if we are able to generate more than a small increase this year," Price said. "Everyone is optimistic and we have our fingers crossed that there will be no fires or floods this year."
Natural disasters are weighing heavily on the industry after two consecutive years of wildfires in the Pikes Peak region, followed by several devastating floods in August and September. The fires and floods combined to slow tourist visits, corporate travel and convention business in the past two years, leaving collections from the city's tax on hotel rooms and rental cars - the best measure of the industry's revenue - flat in 2012 and up just 2.2 percent last year.
"Telling the story of tourism over the last two years is almost like a repeat," Price said in his opening remarks at the Convention and Visitors Bureau annual meeting this month. "The two fires (the Royal Gorge and Black Forest blazes) that broke out on June 11, 2013, turned out to be an incredible deja vu for everyone in the region."
Officials from one of the area's main tourism organizations, the Pikes Peak Country Attractions Association, were not available for comment, but several speakers in a panel discussion at the CVB meeting were more optimistic about the upcoming summer tourism season - barring any more natural disasters.
Some of their optimism is based on a string of popular spring and summer events, headlined by the return of the USA Pro Challenge cycling race in August, which is expected to attract thousands of visitors and generate millions of dollars in economic impact. Other events include the Space Symposium, which starts Monday at The Broadmoor; The Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and related race at Colorado Springs Airport; the Rocky Mountain State Games; and the Colorado Balloon Classic.
The two economists who follow the Colorado Springs economy - Tom Binnings of Summit Economics LLC and Fred Crowley of the Southern Colorado Economic Forum - also are upbeat and expect the tourism industry to begin recovering from the past two years of natural disasters.
"Based on general economic conditions with the (national) economy building momentum, incomes increasing for those with enough to travel and barring any major fires or floods, I'm expecting a significant uptick in tourism this year," Binnings said. "Add to that the continuing drought in California and the rest of the Southwest and the milder weather we have seen in recent months, you may see more visitors coming here to escape the heat. I am very optimistic about this tourism season."
Crowley pointed to a declining national unemployment rate, 2 million jobs created in the past year, rising consumer confidence, retail sales rising at more than twice the inflation rate and lower gas prices than a year ago as factors that will fuel a 5 percent to 7 percent gain in city bed-and-car tax collections.
Crowley also noted that economic growth in Europe, the biggest source of international visitors to Colorado Springs, rose in the first quarter for the first time in two years.
The visitors bureau is spending $1.1 million to advertise the region, targeting primarily families and outdoor recreation enthusiasts but also older visitors interested in history and heritage, said Amy Long, the agency's vice president of marketing and partnerships.
The CVB also is planning to use an advertising partnership with Colorado Springs Airport and a $50,000 grant from the American Red Cross, given to areas hit by wildfires and floods to assist economic recovery, to pay for two online sweepstakes to promote nonstop flights to the Springs and outdoor adventures.
The airport and visitors bureau will launch the first giveaway, called "Get to the Fun Faster," this month, targeting online users from Dallas, Houston, Salt Lake City and Seattle for a free trip that will include a travel allowance for a nonstop flight, a two-night hotel stay and discount passes to 21 local attractions. A second sweepstakes, "Find Your Adventure," also begins this month and will give away two GoPro cameras to visitors from areas at least 150 miles away.
"We are trying to draw attention to nonstop flights to Colorado Springs and also activities that lend themselves to being photographed by a GoPro," Long said. "We are trying to help parts of the area that were hit hardest by the fires and floods."
Local hotels have reported strong bookings for this summer, with most up 5 percent to 8 percent and only a handful with flat or declining bookings compared with last year, which is somewhat stronger than the national average bookings increase of 4 percent to 5 percent, Long said.
Beyond the summer tourism season, which accounts for most of the area's tourism dollars, and even past 2014, visits to the area appear to be picking up, if one barometer is any indication. Ann Alba, resident manager of The Broadmoor hotel and president of the Pikes Peak Lodging Association, said the resort's bookings for 2015 are up by 9,000 room-nights (one room booked for one night) from this year and are up 23,600 room-nights in 2016 from 2015.
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