“We were going to have a heck of a winter and it still wasn’t that bad”
By Katherine Nettles
In a midyear Tourism and Prosperity Project (TAPP) review with the county on July 14, several members of the TAPP and the ICELab discussed the ongoing efforts for valley-wide economic recovery amid the coronavirus crisis, and efforts to continue a diverse range of economic growth as well.
Among the positives are several new or growing businesses related to the TAPP’s management of the ICELab entrepreneurial hub; collaborative projects like a new mountain biking film; and an overall sense of doing better than most tourism-based economies on the Western Slope during the pandemic.
However, the latest numbers show that sales tax revenue is down 6 percent from last year, TAPP executive director John Norton noted, as the tallies from May numbers came out on July 20.
Norton reviewed TAPP’s four main goals of growing lodging revenues; supporting export-focused economic development (through ICELab); promoting Western Colorado University (WCU); and promoting sustainable tourism through the Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation committee.
“We are looking for projects that move across all of our goals,” Norton said. He named several such projects, including the gear review company Blister that relocated to the valley last year; a collaboration with Matchstick Productions on a mountain biking film (to be released in 2021); the start-up company Hustle Bike Labs in the process of moving to the Gunnison Valley; the TerraQuest trail app; and Campfire Ranch in Almont.
Norton said Hustle’s plans to move and launch from the Gunnison Valley are still in the works. “They are delayed because of trade issues with China,” he said, and due to complications from the coronavirus crisis.
Norton said TerraQuest, which hosts the CBG Trails and TrailQuest app, is employing many WCU staff and students for part-time and permanent positions.
“And Campfire Ranch is the newest addition,” he said, and having just opened up, “They are doing well so far.” He said Campfire Ranch is marketing particularly to younger, Front Range crowds who might otherwise go for the I-70 corridor.
“We were going to have a heck of a winter and it still wasn’t that bad,” said Norton of the abrupt end to the ski season and loss of Spring Break visitor revenue. He noted a 5 percent year-over-year increase from November to April, although the latest numbers show the county now has a 6 percent decline from last year with the May numbers factored in.
Summer got off to a slow start due to public health concerns, of course. “We waited one month later for our summer campaign launch, starting in May instead of April,” said Norton. “We are marketing to in-state visitors primarily.” He said an air marketing campaign is set for late summer and fall as well.
Overall, Norton said, “The Gunnison Valley is showing one of the strongest rebounds in our DestiMetrics set… We are hearing from several retailers that this is their best retail season ever.” He added that these retailers are successful under normal circumstances as well. DestiMetrics is a Denver-based company that “provides market intelligence solutions for the destination leisure travel industry.”
Norton and his team also reviewed the organization’s pandemic response, public information officers and business subgroups.
TAPP’s airline marketing consultant Jeff Moffat discussed the Arrivalist cell phone and media tracking software. “This allows us to see what marketing sites people are viewing while planning their trips at home, then what they do once here and how effective our messages are. It definitely took the guesswork out of planning new markets,” he said.
He also explained that WCU MBA candidate Seth Tucker measured backcountry visitation and some estimated economic impacts locally for his outdoor MBA capstone project.
“I think we’re going to find more uses for Arrivalist as time goes on,” said Norton.
Norton said Crested Butte Mountain Resort and TAPP have a similar voice in their marketing campaigns going forward, which will bring a more cohesive theme of what Crested Butte has to offer the world at large.
“I think it’s very helpful that there is no longer a mixed message on what the mountain is about and what the experience is about here,” he said.
ICELab director David Assad gave an update on the ICELab organization. He provided some annual goals and metrics from 2019 showing the ICELab recruited one company; supported the creation of six jobs (with a goal of five); supported the creation of three jobs that pay more than $50,000 (with a goal of one); and supported revenue increases among its companies of $873,000 (with a goal of $200,000).
“We had a really great year in 2019 and we’re hoping to see the same for 2020,” he concluded.
Commissioner Jonathan Houck expressed overall appreciation for TAPP’s “nimbleness” during the past several months. “Everyone had to change course in mid-March… It’s been a time to scramble and be flexible and you’ve been a part of that as well,” he said. TAPP’s communications director, Andrew Sandstrom, was specially recognized for his work with the county’s industry groups.
The commissioners had some comments on industry groups and a few questions for TAPP.
Commissioner Roland Mason said there was confusion with the transition from the ICELab to the county with the dashboards used on the website. He also expressed concern about the need to move indoors again in the fall, and how that will present more challenges for businesses.
“I feel that we are going to need a smooth transition and maybe more clarity between TAPP and the county economic recovery team,” said Mason. “The subgroup was important and will be as important if not more in fall and winter.”
Mason also asked for financials on TAPP’s subgroup meetings and public information officers. Norton and Sandstrom said they can collect that information fairly easily; Sandstrom said the costs were primarily staff time, but also some equipment.
Assad estimated the cost at “tens of thousands, if not more.”
Houck spoke of the county‘s process of hiring a recovery specialist, which has since happened with Loren Ahonen, who began on July 27.
“There’s a recovery and there’s a whole level of maintenance to that,” he said.
“That’s one of the primary goals, having the communication between the different entities.”
Newly sworn-in commissioner Liz Smith asked about the Blister speaker series normally held in the fall and about the mountain sports program.
“If we’re unable to gather in an auditorium, [we] have suggested some outdoor spaces,” replied Norton. “We’ve got to make plans. We can’t plan nothing. But we have to know that some of our plans might not be viable.
“It could be a pretty weird year,” he acknowledged. “But we’ve got to be safe.”
Houck asked how to address reluctance from lodging businesses at the south end of the valley to participate with DestiMetrics, and Norton said it was a challenge.
“The north valley lodges … do a projection about two weeks out as a service to the restaurants so the restaurants can plan their food orders,” said Norton, and he suggested restaurants and lodges could very much benefit from this in the south end, and it would help them predict when to raise their rates.
Sandstrom said, “I have worked very hard to get more properties on board. And one major issue I’ve seen is they are all part of the Choice Hotels chain, so they are getting a lot of that same information there. The problem is we are not getting it, so that we can then share it with the restaurants.”
Houck also asked how to carry on the Catapult business accelerator program, even with the public health limitations.
“I want us to work toward recovering things that have worked for our community,” Houck said.
Norton said they are hopeful and working on it. “We want to see that economic opportunity continue. Making sure we are continuing to point TAPP in the direction that our community asked us to,” he said. Norton also expressed that he felt the decision to leave TAPP’s budget intact to support the recovery was “a good one.”