Despite the pandemic, county crushed 2020 lodging tax

People coming for trails…Ski season looking robust

[ By Mark Reaman ]

About a year ago the coronavirus wave was still small. The tsunami would come in March and when it did, the expectation for the valley in terms of tourism was bleak given the unknowns and the complete shutdown of the ski area during spring break. But the fears of a drastic decrease in tourism numbers did not come to pass and recent numbers released by the county show that lodging actually increased significantly in 2020 over 2019. In fact, with a 30-percent increase year over year in lodging tax registered in December, the year ended up by 11.4-percent.

“That is totally surprising,” admitted Tourism and Prosperity Partnership executive director John Norton. “Back in April I was asked by the board to estimate revenues for 2020. I guessed we would be down 30 percent to 50 percent, and some felt I was being optimistic. But living in a pandemic was new to all of us.”

The 11-percent increase is not only surprising on its own but when compared to other “hard to get to” resort communities such as Telluride, Aspen/Snowmass and Steamboat the number is even more impressive. “It looks like they’re coming in at about minus 20-percent in lodging revenues versus 2019,” Norton said. “And it needs pointing out that while our marketing is good, it doesn’t account for that kind of spread in performance versus our sister mountain valleys. Those other places have big events, which were all cancelled. They have a lot of corporate and group business, which did not happen. And meanwhile, biking and mountain biking just exploded this past year, and here we are sitting in the middle of the best trail network maybe in the world.

“Trails has been a great message for us and in a pandemic year, even more so,” he continued. “By the way, we’re looking less at an increase in visitors than we are visitors spending more for their lodging and maybe staying a bit longer. And along with that, we’ve spoken to retailers who had really good years, so people may have been spending more for lodging and more in other areas.”

Digging a bit deeper into the numbers that drive the lodging tax revenues, Norton said that based upon an estimate by the guest tracking app Arrivalist, there were approximately 407,000 visitors in the valley in 2020 compared to 443,000 in 2019, an eight percent decrease. “Visitor spending per night of lodging grew 21-percent however. That’s an enormous increase, pandemic or no,” he explained. “Total visitor spending was $203 million last year versus $185 million the year before. So 2020 broke the $200 million mark for the first time.”

A breakdown of the tax revenue data indicates that Crested Butte, Almont and unincorporated parts of the valley were the big winners in 2020 in terms of lodging tax. Norton said that, “clearly, people were looking to rent VRBOs in the pandemic year and to not be crowded with others.”

Ski season robust as well
Tourist visits don’t appear to be dropping off the cliff this winter season and people are coming here to ski. “By and large, we’re the valley’s marketing voice in the non-snow months. But in the winter, this December as a case in point, Vail Resorts/CBMR kicks in. More Epic Passes were sold for this season than last. And again we see people spending more on lodging,” said Norton.

CBMR management can generally confirm that people are coming to Crested Butte to ski. “We have been pleased with the volume of visitation we’ve seen this season as people look for safe outlets to get outside during the pandemic,” said vice president and chief operating officer Tim Baker. “While as a publicly traded company we don’t release specific figures for skier visits, we’ve had a great season so far at Crested Butte Mountain Resort and are grateful to everyone who has made this success possible, from our employees and the community to our guests.”

The TAPP, like most everyone, had anticipated the lower revenues in 2020 given the pandemic situation but now seeing the money that came in the last several months, the board plans to approach the county for more LMD (Local Marketing District) money to fill out its budget.

“There’s a pretty big gap between our 2021 spending plan and the actual revenues we generated in 2020. We plan to approach the county commissioners with a plan for more spending, which will include some brand-building at the new airport, and more support for STOR, Western and the ICELab and its economic development mission,” explained Norton. “Those other areas account for a third of our spending, but it’s important to remember that it’s tourism spending that drives all four parts of our mission. This could be a tough year for us as people who may have visited in 2020 return to their other favorite spots that will again offer big well-loved events, big group movements and so on.”

Norton, who predicted that 30 to 50 percent drop in lodging tax revenues in 2020 isn’t as willing to make a prediction for 2021. “If you asked me if I’d rather put 5 percent growth in 2021 in the bank right now or take our chances with the year, I’d take the 5 percent! There is still so much unknown as a result of the COVID pandemic. We have been fortunate so far.”

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