After a year of restrictions and concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pikes Peak region's tourism industry is getting ready for crowds of visitors like they haven't seen in two years.
While the industry fared better than the rest of the state and nation during the pandemic, by all measures visitor numbers were still down sharply from the record-setting 2019 tourism season. But with most restrictions on restaurants, hotels and other tourism-related businesses relaxed or lifted entirely, the industry is expecting a resurgence in visitors arriving by road and air during the summer season that traditionally begins next weekend.
"The Pikes Peak region is getting ready to blow the doors off summer, based on a lot of conversations I have had with attractions in the region and other industry peers," said Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions, Royal Gorge Cabins and the 8-Mile Bar & Grill, all in Cañon City. "With growing vaccination rates, there is an appetite among travelers for things to return to normal."
Neinas believes the region's tourism industry will benefit from pent-up demand from travelers who haven't been able to take a vacation in more than a year and want to "enjoy the outdoors." He said customer inquiries, bookings and deposits all are up significantly from last year, including advance reservations for the 25 cabins that his company operates -- stronger than typical for this time of the year.
Not only are tourism businesses benefiting from eased pandemic restrictions, visitors several new choices along with old favorites that have been renovated or improved. That includes the return of The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway this weekend, the opening of the new Pikes Peak Summit House next month and the new 8,000-seat Weidner Field soccer stadium downtown that opened earlier this month and the first tourism season with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum open for its full schedule of operating hours.
The cog railway had been closed since late 2017 for a $100 million project to rebuild the 8.9-mile track, add three new train cars, refurbish the four older units and renovate the cog's depot, adding more restrooms. The new cars will have 49 more seats than the cog's previous fleet, feature cloth seats instead of wooden benches and will have a smoother and faster ride because of the new tracks, said Spencer Wren, the railway's longtime general manager.
The railway resumed service Thursday through Sunday and will take a short break before starting again May 27. Round-trip tickets bought online cost $58 for passengers older than 12 years with an extra $10 to reserve a specific seat. Tickets for children ages 3 to 12 cost $10 less and children under 3 years old ride free. Ticket sales for Memorial Day weekend are strong with seven of 23 round-trips sold out as of Wednesday.
"Our customers tend to book four to seven days out but advance bookings are very strong. There is a whole lot of excitement" about the railway resuming service, Wren said.
Cog passengers won't be able to see the new $65 million summit house for several more weeks as winter weather on Pikes Peak has delayed completion of construction and opening until at least mid-June, said Jack Glavan, manager of Pikes Peak — America's Mountain. Visitors still will be able to walk around the summit and enjoy the observation decks on the summit house until the new facility opens, he said.
Glavan is expecting visitors on the highway this year to top last year's total of 527,000 but end up slightly below the 592,000 total from two years ago, in part because more people will travel to summit on the cog railway.
The new summit house will feature a grand staircase to a wall of windows overlooking Mt. Rosa, an interpretive display that tells visitors how far they are from their home town, more than double the number of women's restrooms that were in the former summit house (a chronic issue) and a new ventless doughnut cooking center that is so large it had to lowered into the building during construction. While the machine cooking the popular pastries is new, the secret recipe remains the same, Glavan said.
While big crowds are expected in coming weeks, many tourism businesses and industry officials said the peak season has already started.
"It sure seems to feel like the (tourism) season kicked off early. It has been outstanding. I have heard from several attractions that they had their best April ever, and that was without the Space Symposium that is normally held during that month," said Doug Price, CEO of Visit Colorado Springs. "As restrictions (on businesses) have been lifted and the vaccination rate improving, it seems like people will be spontaneous and will get in their car and go on vacation this summer."
P.K. McPherson, executive director of the Pikes Peak Country Attractions Association, a trade group for 28 tourist businesses in the region, reports ticket sales last month for its members were up 18% from last year with more than a third reporting record numbers. Visitors are flush with cash saved during the pandemic and from several federal stimulus payments over the past year that they want to spend traveling, she said.
"For most of 2020, people didn't go out to eat or on vacation, so they have more disposable income to spend," McPherson said. "People are excited to come back to the Pikes Peak region. Many are returning and there is a lot of interest among them in the cog railway and the new summit house. Colorado Springs has become a lot better known by the traveling public in the past five years as more national attention has been focused on us."
The arrival of low-fare giant Southwest Airlines in Colorado Springs in March with 13 daily nonstop flights to Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix also is expected to bring more visitors to the region. Southwest helped the Colorado Springs Airport boost March passenger numbers 67% from a year ago to the highest level since before the pandemic hit the area and passenger traffic for the year is expected to double last year's total, the lowest in 37 years.
Both Visit Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak Country Attractions Association plan to spend heavily on advertising both within Colorado and out-of-state to bring tourists to the region. Combined, the two groups will spend more than $1 million — up modestly from what they typically spend in most years — mostly targeted at the Denver area and surrounding states and a few key markets like Florida.
Ann Alba, president of the Pikes Peak Lodging Association, said bookings from leisure travelers and small groups for this summer are strong and make the summer tourism season "feel real busy." Visitor numbers have been building since state and local officials began relaxing restrictions in March and are expected to surge in June as the vacation season hits a peak after most schools close for the summer.
Price isn't expecting the tourism industry to fully recover this year to levels it reached in 2019 as the large meetings and conferences that were canceled last year aren't scheduled to return in a major way until next year. Although the Space Symposium is scheduled to return to The Broadmoor in August, the city's largest convention will be a hybrid in-person and online event with attendance limited by pandemic restrictions to less than half of its usual 14,000 participants.
"The group business is still lagging. A lot of groups who postponed or canceled meetings last year are now asking for dates and information and that bodes well for 2022," Price said. "Conde Nast (magazine) ranked Colorado Springs as the top place to visit for Memorial Day. You also have the impact of the upcoming Olympic Games on the (Olympic and Paralympic) museum and the city's sesquicentennial (150th birthday), which means a lot of people will be coming here to celebrate."
STR, a Tennessee-based hotel industry research firm, and Tourism Economics, a Pennsylvania-based travel economics company, forecast that hotels won't fully recover to 2019 levels until 2024. The forecast released earlier this month projects nationwide hotel occupancy rates to recover from 41.6% last year to 53.3% this year and 60.1% next year and reaching 2019 in 2023 but room rates and revenue per available room not fully recovering until the following year.
“The expectations for the upcoming summer months have been strong for some time, but the year got off to a better start than anticipated as vaccinations expanded and consumers flush with savings felt ready to jump back into the experiences that were put on hold over the past year,” STR President said Amanda Hite said in a news release.
“As we saw in late March and early April, leisure continues to be the primary source of demand although improving weekday occupancies indicate that some business travel is back in the marketplace. What remains furthest off from meaningful recovery is group business, but there is hope for upward movement in that segment as more events get back on the books," Hite continued.
Hotel and convention center officials across Colorado said they’re seeing an increase in bookings and room reservations, mostly coming from the leisure sector. Large-group gatherings and conventions that businesses typically bring are still struggling with continuing COVID-19 restrictions, but are getting creative this year and momentum is building for 2022 and beyond bookings.
“There’s finally an uptick in business,” said Gregory Leonard, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Denver Convention Center. “We’ve had pockets here and there, and good success on weekends. The leisure traveler on weekends has been very strong. We’re recovering on the coattails of the leisure traveler.”
Leonard said the convention business outlook is good, as the Colorado Convention Center upgrades/expansion project gets underway this year and bookings appear to be picking up. A recent spate of dance and volleyball events started the recovery.
“We’ve got more groups coming in August — namely the Outdoor Retailer show — and throughout 2021,” he said. “Our property is so contingent on the Convention Center. Major conventions will be the last ramp up.”
Beaver Run Resort & Conference Center in Breckenridge's General Manager Bob Barto agreed.
“We anticipate being busier than last summer, but not as busy as 2018-19,” Barto said. “There’s a huge amount of pent-up demand to go travel.”
While the resort’s 567 privately owned condos have stayed occupied for the most part — especially with driving tourists from states like Florida and Texas — Beaver Run’s 40,000 square feet of meeting space has been mostly empty for more than a year. Owners took the opportunity to push up a capital improvement project that was scheduled for 2022, and installed new roofs and an HVAC system in 2020.
Meeting groups are scheduled for June and July, but Barto said they’ll have to get creative for the Colorado Association of School Executives meeting in late July. It typically brings 1,000 school officials. Instead of 500 people in one room listening to keynote speakers, conference goers will be spread to different rooms and watch on a simulcast.
“I think on the group side, we’re still looking two-to-five years out for full recovery,” Barto said. “But we’re very optimistic it will return.”
Another factor limiting visitor numbers likely will be the region's tight labor market — restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions all have reported difficulty in hiring staff. That may force some hotels to not open all of their rooms, restaurants to reduce diner capacity and tourist attractions to reduce the number of visitors they can accommodate to maintain a high level of customer service.
The cog railway is a good example, hiring 36 people in recent weeks to add to its 19 year-around staff members. But another 45 to 55 people will be needed by the peak of the summer season, Wren said. He hopes to have more applicants as local schools send students home for the summer.