Summer tourism in valley giving mixed signals

TAPP shows a strong start to the year, projects flat second half 

By Katherine Nettles

In a mid-year update to Gunnison County commissioners last week, Gunnison Valley Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) representatives noted that local tourism had a robust start to 2024, but summer and fall visitation is looking fairly flat for now, based on summaries of commercial lodging occupancy and short-term rental availability. 

Areas of growth and success for TAPP include summer airline schedules and bookings, environmental stewardship endeavors, collaborations with both Western Colorado University (WCU) and the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) and economic development.

First, TAPP’s executive director John Norton reviewed tourism in the valley from a lodging, marketing and airline bookings standpoint. Norton explained that after a third and fourth quarter comeback, 2023 ended down just 1% from 2022 in Local Marketing District (LMD) collections, which are TAPP’s source of funding for its various programs. 

Tourism

After a slow start to the 2023/2024 ski season, the second half of the season brought more snow and terrain openings at Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR). This coincided with a boost in LMD collections, which ended up 13% overall for winter.  

“The increase in tax collections aligned with growth in passengers through the airport, organic and paid traffic to gunnisoncrestedbutte.com and lodging search volume,” stated TAPP’s report included in the commissioners’ meeting portfolio. The report also highlighted that winter air was “a huge success” with growth in both capacity and passengers flown.

The Gunnison-Crested Butte airport flew more passengers last winter than it had in the last several decades, according to the data, and new satellite-based approaches to flight management allowed for a flight completion rate of 98% and higher. 

“This reliability builds confidence from our customers both visitor and local in depending on the flights. Despite strong bookings, the RTA did have to pay out the full minimum revenue guarantee (MRG) for the Houston [United] flights. (That payment was $521,954).

This was due to lower fares and higher costs to operate the flight,” according to the report. 

For summer, Norton said TAPP’s focus is still on recreation trails and public lands access, and has especially increased marketing efforts to showcase the valley’s gravel biking opportunities. “Gravel has done really well so far,” he said, noting that the valley has 580-plus miles of established gravel biking routes and TAPP has expanded that campaign to encompass 20% of its non-snow related marketing budget.

County commissioner Laura Puckett Daniels commended TAPP’s work with bikepacking.com to build mutually beneficial marketing content and website links.

TAPP marketing director Andrew Sandstrom said the valley is trending flat to last year in summer and fall travel bookings. But he said there are also mixed signals among the different metrics used to get a sense for how summer will shape up. Lodging searches as of April and May were up 77%, while airline capacity is flat and airline bookings are up slightly from last year. TAPP’s website performance is showing that “organic” or unpaid web traffic has done well, while paid traffic has had a slower start. Tracking data based on commercial lodging and Mt. Crested Butte lodging is showing that occupancy is down 3%, but other data looking at availability on Airbnb and VRBO shows that occupancy is up 5%. 

Sandstrom said each data set has some strengths and challenges in forecasting. “If we make assumptions about both these reports, it looks like we are pacing about flat to last summer,” his report summarized. 

“It is worth noting that the airlines seem to be pretty bullish on Gunnison County,” said Sandstrom, particularly with United pacing up slightly in bookings and boutique air carrier JSX increasing capacity from Texas from July through August. United also launched a second daily flight between GUC and Denver through the fall. “We can see that the airlines are seeing opportunity here in the valley,” he said. 

Filling those flights will help ensure them for the future for both visitors and locals who need to fly out for work, he said. “So we’re keeping some [marketing] powder dry to market those flights in the fall.” 

Norton acknowledged that the Highway 50 Middle Bridge closure at Blue Mesa Reservoir would impact Gunnison drive-through traffic and one-night stays disproportionately compared with Crested Butte. County commissioner chair Jonathan Houck agreed that while many businesses in and near Gunnison depend on that drive-through traffic, “Our destination visitors still are Front Range heavy, second homeowners or drive market from Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico. All those folks have unimpeded access to the valley based on the current road situation.”

Sustainability 

TAPP’s update also covered its environmental stewardship focuses, which includes an outdoor bathroom kit and information campaign called “Doo” Right Colorado,  made by PACT, a company based in the Gunnison Valley. The Colorado Tourism Office is funding the campaign for the second year in a row, and Sandstrom said the campaign “Is touching on every part of our mission,” between Gunnison-Crested Butte logos on the kits, heavy website traffic and positive media attention. “And it’s marketing us as a destination that cares about the outdoors and attracting the right type of visitors here.”  

TAPP is overseeing an advertising/messaging campaign during the busiest six weeks of the summer targeted at people who are in the Gunnison Valley, based on the sustainable recreation principles. TAPP is funding the campaign at $5,000, and has committed $3,000 to additional law enforcement on public lands along with outreach and education efforts for trail users. 

Collaborations with WCU and RMBL

Jenifer Blacklock, director of WCU’s Rady School of Engineering, reviewed TAPP’s partnership with WCU for outdoor industry engineering (OIE) with Blister Labs and in a post-baccalaureate program. This summer, 15 undergraduates are working on four different OIE-focused projects with Blister Labs: mountain bike wheel testing, ski and ski boot flex testing, technical fabric testing and EV bike battery efficiency testing.  

“We have the testing systems in place now for mountain bike wheels and skis and technical fabric,” she said. Those three systems are scheduled to be finished this summer, while the bike battery testing technology is in the early design phase. 

Blacklock said the Rady OIE post-bacc program gives recent engineering graduates who want to stay in the valley a paid opportunity to work on local projects for an additional year to try to structure a long-term job for themselves. 

“Can they work at a start-up, can they launch a company, can they partner with the folks that we’ve been partnering with in the valley to help with some of the technical aspects… and take them to market,” she described of the program’s opportunities. This summer there are two post-baccs starting their one-year contract. 

“There’s a lot of promise to this model and we’ll see where it goes,” she said.   

TAPP is also supporting a summer research program with Rady faculty and undergraduate students on RMBL-related projects that will continue through the 2024/2025 academic year. 

These projects include machine learning and classifying snow; developing sensors to measure land surface data (radiation, soil temperature, energy dynamics, etc.); plant leaf area images to measure transfer of water and carbon; animal weight and snowpack measurements to aid in land management decisions; and snowpack onset and persistence estimates. 

RMBL executive director Ian Billick said TAPP’s funding ($25,000 per quarter for 2024) has allowed RMBL to shift staffing and resources around to increase personnel time and focus more on science and securing additional funding. “They really create opportunities to bring in research from all over the world,” Billick said, particularly related to climate research and related jobs. 

Economic development

While many of TAPP’s collaborations and campaigns have an economic development aspect, the ICELab business resource center has a sole focus to create more high paying jobs in Gunnison County and support  entrepreneurs in the valley. The ICELab’s acting director, TJ Taylor, reviewed that the cumulative job opportunity growth from 2019 to 2023 was “significant,” as costs of living continue to rise and require more high-paying jobs. He reported that in 2023, there were four companies recruited to the county, 62 jobs created and 34 of those jobs paid more than $50,000-$60,000. 

Commissioner Puckett Daniels asked that the ICELab consider how it measures “high paying jobs” to reflect current statistics. Recently released area median income (AMI) charts for 2024, she said, reflected that incomes have gone up about 20% over the past two years. 

“So right now, about $55,000 to $60,000 for a one-person household is actually about 80% of the AMI, or below average…In 2019, $55,000 was a good paying job and now it’s below average,” she said. “As we look to the future and what the goals are, we have to change these metrics.”

Taylor agreed and said they will begin to base the metric at $60,000 and higher in the coming years.

TAPP’s update also covered organizational finances, showing that it is tracking close to budget with marketing the largest budgeted expense at 52%, ICELab at 17% and WCU collaborations at 6% of the total budget. TAPP’s income from the LMD from January through April was $1.1 million, with expenses during that period totaling $886,000.

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