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Colorado’s Tourism Industry Is Prepping for a Near Normal Summer

With vaccines renewing consumer confidence, Centennial State venues, hotels, and event planners are optimistic about the coming months. But they’re still planning for all scenarios.

To say that Jackie Sullivan’s travel plans for 2020 were disrupted by the pandemic is an understatement. Trips to France, New Zealand, and Istanbul were canceled, as were closer-to-home outings to Red Rocks Amphitheater, the Denver Art Museum, and the Denver Performing Arts Center.

Instead, the 69-year-old and her husband Larry spent the last 12 months close to their Boulder residence hiking, cycling, and paddleboarding. They only saw friends and family occasionally—always with masks in an outdoor setting. But now, more than a year after the couple went into a strict quarantine, they have trips on the books within both driving and flying distance. What’s renewed Sullivan’s confidence? “Vaccines, absolutely vaccines,” she says. “We would not be going if we did not have vaccines. Zero chance.”

Sullivan isn’t the only one gearing up for a summer away from home now that she’s been inoculated. According to data released in early March from travel-focused market research firm Destination Analysts, 84 percent of Americans have trips at least tentatively planned.

“There is going to be a pent-up demand for travel this summer,” says Caitlin Johnson, public relations contractor for the Colorado Tourism Office. “People want to get out and explore and reconnect with the family and friends they haven’t been able to spend time with.”

Colorado’s tourism industry is more than happy to oblige. Event planners are moving forward with large-scale festivals and public gatherings. Restaurants are excited for more open-air dining offerings. And hotels are beginning to hire for increased demand. “We are cautiously optimistic,” says Eliza Voss, vice president destination marketing for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. “Everybody is hopeful that we can have a successful summer season, but [in] the past year, everybody has learned a lot in terms of being able to pivot as necessary as dictated by public health.”

Indeed, even with of the state’s recently updated COVID dial—Version 3.0, which debuted this week, makes it easier for counties to move into the least-restrictive Level Green: Protect Our Neighbors and relaxes restrictions for bars and retail establishments, among others, for counties in Level Blue: Caution—it’s clear this summer won’t be a full return to pre-2020 standards.

As a result, many businesses in the travel industry, among them Denver-based Team Player Productions (TPP)—an events company that organizes gatherings like the Vail Craft Beer Classic, the Breckenridge Wine Classic, and the Denver Burger Battle—aren’t taking any chances. So far, the company has around 12 major events scheduled for summer and fall 2021 (about half of what they would host in a “normal” year) and they’re prepping for all levels on any version of Colorado’s COVID-19 dial. That means TPP is operating under the possibility that social distancing and strict capacity limits will still be in effect come summer. Ticket sales have been limited accordingly, necessitating wait lists. “We are planning for a sliding scale of guidelines and restrictions with capacities, with how far apart each vendor needs to be, and with how far the performers need to be from the patrons,” says TPP’s event director Kristen Slater. “There’s a lot of things to take into consideration this year.”

Restaurants have also prepared for a range of restriction levels, though they’re eager to reopen to full capacity. The Colorado Restaurant Association (CRA) has encouraged municipalities to implement favorable open container laws and expanded common consumption areas, noting that these additional revenue streams will be critical as restaurants try to recover from the economic damage caused by the pandemic. The CRA is also strongly in favor of measures to facilitate outdoor dining, something Sonia Riggs, the group’s president and CEO, sees as a “win-win-win.” She points to the success of these programs last summer, noting “customers enjoyed it, it gave restaurants an opportunity to serve additional guests, and the government brought in more tax revenue. It also brought a greater sense of community to many neighborhoods.”

Entertainment en plein air is unfortunately not an option for some venues, including the newly renovated Monarch Casino Resort Spa in Black Hawk. But again, thanks to the vaccine, Monarch’s director of marketing Erica Ferris reports an increase in inquiries for summer visits. Recounting how she saw a small family toasting to their vaccinated status in their on-site chophouse, Ferris is hopeful that “as this year goes on, and those vaccines become more available, we’re just going to see more and more of these types of celebrations.”

Representatives from the hotel and lodging industry are also celebrating travelers’ increased willingness to take to the skies. On March 21, Denver International Airport saw more than 58,000 people make their way through TSA, its busiest day for screening since the pandemic began. Though that number still falls short of the March 2019 average of 62,000 people through the checkpoint per day, the trend indicates positive things to come, says Walter Isenberg, president and CEO of Sage Hospitality Group, which owns the Crawford Hotel at Denver Union Station, as well as a handful of other properties throughout Colorado. “In order for us to have a robust hospitality environment, we need people on airplanes,” he says.

There are some exceptions, though. Isenberg points out that some hotels in the mountains did just fine last year, even surpassing 2019 visitation. People weren’t traveling internationally, but they had a strong appetite for what felt like safe, outdoor-focused travel.

Urban environments on the other hand weren’t particularly appealing in 2020—and that was crippling for city-dwelling hoteliers. “Downtown Denver wasn’t exactly that attractive because there were no Rockies games. There were no Broncos games. There was no theater,” Isenberg says. “The things you would do in an urban environment, they were all closed.”

But the data paints a rosy picture on that front as well: The Destination Analysts study reported that 38.8 percent of Americans will visit a city or metropolitan area in the next three months. “As the need to social distance diminishes, which it will do as a result of the vaccine, the urban experience will be more attractive for all the reasons people were coming to cities before the pandemic,” Isenberg says, pointing to attractions like professional sports, theater, shopping, and dining. “We have a vibrant, dynamic city. It’s not like people don’t want to do that anymore. It’s just that they couldn’t do it.”

Of course, not everyone is ready to travel yet. Given that Destination Analysts reports 84 percent of people do have travel plans in the works, that leaves 16 percent that might still be hesitant to commit.

Even Sullivan, who clearly feels comfortable (finally) leaving her neck of the woods, has planned a slow re-entry to travel. Her first trip isn’t scheduled until July 4 and she’s not planning to interact with many people outside of her small, fully vaccinated travel party. Instead, they’ll spend most of their five-day stint enjoying the great outdoors. Their destination: Wyoming. “It really feels like a treat,” Sullivan laughs, joking that she’s as excited as she would be if they’d booked a trip to Europe. “It’s going to be Casper. And it’s going to be awesome!”

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