Tourism Association says winter grew, while summer season cannot

Expect to see prices reflect increased demand

by Seth Mensing

In this time right between a busy winter of seeing more visitors in the valley, more sales in the local shops and more skiers on the mountain, and a summer season bursting at the seams, Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association (TA) director John Norton has plenty of good things to talk about.

During a report to the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, May 23, Norton talked about the Gunnison Valley’s improving placement among similarly situated resort communities, holding up occupancy rates in the valley’s hotels, condos and B&Bs as a particular bright spot.

Not only did properties across the valley see higher occupancy rate increases than any of the competing markets the TA looks at, “We moved from number 17 or 18 out of 18 in total occupancies to number 14,” said Norton. “We were the only mountain valley to see reduced lodging rates versus the previous winter.”

In addition to big gains in the north end of the valley, the city of Gunnison also saw some benefit from the TA’s Gunnison Getaway winter promotion, with a jump in the number of winter visitors staying in Gunnison. Norton told the commissioners one-third of the people who landed at the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport got their lodging in Gunnison.

Commissioner Jonathan Houck wanted to reflect on that statistic for a moment. “When I served on the Gunnison City Council, I served with a councilmember who would repeatedly say that the airport does nothing for the city of Gunnison, the airport could close and it wouldn’t impact the city of Gunnison—and that shows that the city of Gunnison has opportunity with the lodging properties,” Houck said. “And I really appreciate the outreach [done by the TA] to say skiing is a Gunnison Valley deal and there are opportunities across the spectrum of price points.”

The one takeaway from the winter for Norton that wasn’t entirely positive was the realization that direct flights from Chicago just don’t work out.

“Chicago doubled in passengers, although we did not find a lot of mountain athletes in Chicago, for as big a metro area as it is. The RTA saw very few passengers, relatively speaking, originating in Chicago,” Norton said, indicating that most people on those flights flew through Chicago from someplace else to get the cheaper fare. “We started Chicago in ‘85 and it’s just not our place, I think.”

Summer, however, has no problem attracting mountain athletes to the Gunnison Valley. Instead, Norton said the TA wouldn’t be actively marketing the valley for July and the first two weeks of August, when the towns, rivers and trails are overrun with visitors. “We won’t actively promote anything in those six weeks, although we’ll still talk about summer and what a joy it is to be here.”

Outside that window, the TA will continue to promote the area’s mountain biking, starting with the Growler this weekend on the trails south of Gunnison. The 350 spots available for that event are nearly sold out, he said, so it will be a good place to launch the TA’s latest promotion, called TrailQuest.

The TrailQuest app will introduce new and better maps of the mountain bike trails in the area, Norton said, “including the gravel grinding south of Gunnison.” The promotion will also include a challenge to ride all of the trails in the valley, totaling more than 750 miles. “We expect people will pursue this and start riding trails in places they haven’t historically been.”

The TA is also reaching out to mountain bikers in central and southern Arizona—where people are forced by the heat to ride at night—to let them know what the Gunnison Valley has to offer. One Tucson bike club, Norton said, was considering promoting Crested Butte as a destination to its members.

Norton also hinted at plans to pursue partnerships with big names in the outdoor industry, like REI and Teton Gravity Research, to raise the valley’s profile among mountain towns through film and marketing collaborations.

Even without these efforts, the number of people visiting the valley in the summer season has exploded and Norton acknowledged that the growth should be managed. In a meeting with DestiMetrics, the company that tracks a number of data points across the destination travel industry for the county, Norton learned that the other communities in our market are seeing pre-season booking remain flat, while the data company is predicting increases of 62 percent in June, 17 percent in July, 92 percent in August, and 85 percent in September for the Gunnison Valley.

Pointing out that the summer season prices haven’t reflected the increase in demand from tourists, as they have in some other mountain communities, Norton suggested that by using the data available to the county, business owners could adjust their prices to reflect the market.

“Summer is off to a fast start. We can’t maintain the numbers we’re looking at [from DestiMetrics],” Norton said.

When asked, Norton said he thought part of the valley’s growth was because costs here undercut other resort communities, but to the detriment of the businesses. “We’d love these guys to make more money so they can hire more people and so the general manager  doesn’t have to pull out his or her hair each day being too busy to think about the business. They need to be profitable to reinvest in their businesses,” Norton said. “The horse hasn’t completely left the barn and I think as people see the occupancies continue to grow, there will be some normalizing in how they’re all priced.”

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