MOFFAT COUNTY, Colo. — Few states have a reputation quite like colorful Colorado.
“Get your camera ready,” said one visitor. “Colorado is on the bucket list of so many Americans.”
The state tourism office captures Colorado’s beauty perfectly in a new campaign video called "Shine a little brighter."
Tim Wolfe is the director of the Colorado Tourism Office (CTO) and says while tourism is a lifeblood, travel revenues took a huge hit in Colorado during the COVID-19 pandemic, down from $24 billion in 2019 to $15 billion in 2020.
“All the signs are pointing in the right direction right now,” Wolfe said.
Patrick Pahlke is the chief marketing and commercial officer for Sage Hospitality and sees the direction of tourism moving to a positive place, as well.
“We’ve really focused the past two years on amping up the experiential part of our properties,” Pahlke said.
At the Rally Hotel directly across from Coors Field, the scene offers a prime example of experiential travel, pairing America’s pastime with overnight stays in LoDo.
“Gamedays around here, there’s just a buzz and energy,” said Megan Copenhaver, marketing manager at the Rally Hotel. “It’s just electric. Everything Colorado all rolled into one.”
It worked on Jason and Julie Gilmore from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“She talked me into buying a purple shirt,” said Jason.
The couple came for a concert and ended up staying for a ballgame.
“We just literally came downstairs and bought some t-shirts,” Gilmore said.
Pahlke says the leisure traveler is back, while business travel is still down 30%.
“It is so encouraging to see that both entities — the state of Colorado and the city of Denver — are prioritizing tourism spending again,” Pahlke said.
The state will sink an additional $9 million into tourism this year and next.
“We were couped up without our social interactions,” Wolfe said. “So now, we want to go and be social and engaged.”
“Revenge travel is huge right now,” said Christian Hardigree, dean of the School of Hospitality at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
She says Colorado needs to strike while the iron’s hot and capitalize on pent-up demand.
“We have to think about the folks that maybe don’t know Colorado,” Hardigree said. “We’re trying to bring in new people. We’re not trying to sell to people who are already sold.”
“She’s 100% right,” Wolfe said.
Colorado is greatly outspent on tourism marketing by other states, including California, Arizona, Michigan and Florida to name a few.
“The budgets and campaigns from these other states are becoming extremely aggressive,” Wolfe said.
California, for example, spends about $195 million on tourism campaigns compared to Colorado’s $20 million — roughly 10 times more.
“And Arizona is three times more, Wyoming is more,” Wolfe said.
“So, the more they invest in [tourism], the more we need to,” Hardigree said. “Or they’re going to take our travelers away from us.”
Moffat County says spend it.
“There isn’t a country in the world that doesn’t invest in getting people to come visit them. Why? Because people leave money behind when they come and play,” said Tom Kleinschnitz, who heads up tourism in Colorado’s Moffat County, home of Dinosaur National Monument.
“Who doesn’t like dinosaurs?” said Kleinschnitz. “The topography in that spot will just take your breath away. And the Yampa River goes right through the middle of our county. It’s the most beautiful river in the state of Colorado in my view. It is certainly the most natural.”
But there’s also pushback by some who say Colorado doesn’t need any more tourists than it already attracts.
“The community of Steamboat has actually given direction to our chamber to cut back on marketing for tourism,” said Linda Cullen, owner of Chez Nous women’s shop in Steamboat. She’s also a realtor with Sutherby’s.
Cullen, for one, enjoys the crowds, but also believes there must be a balance. Many Steamboat residents say it’s simply hard to get around during peak travel periods.
“It creates infrastructure problems just for the locals,” Cullen said. “We always joke about the new people moving here because they come in and want to lock the gate at the bottom of the pass.”
“It’s a great point,” Wolfe said. “We certainly have a lot of visitors.”
Wolfe’s team even created a "Do Colorado Right" campaign to encourage responsible travel, like being kind to wait staff as the restaurant industry continues to battle back from unprecedented staffing shortages.
Wolfe says international travel to Colorado is also still down about 50% as of the first quarter of 2022.
“And those are really high value and high paying guests that come and spend in retail and restaurants, and they also stay longer,” Wolfe said. “And they stay on the shoulders – those Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, which are needed times for the mountains and the ski industry.”
Time will tell if the infusion of money into tourism is money well spent.
Wolfe says the state will also spend about $1 million updating welcome centers at rural entry points to Colorado along the state line.
“They really haven’t had a refresh in more than 20 years,” Wolfe said. “And we know that we have about one million visitors in our welcome centers, and they spend on average of $200 more in the state based on the conversations and experience they have in our welcome centers. So, we can often recommend them to particular attractions, excursions or experiences that they may not have thought about. It’s a key component that we need to invest in.”