As mountain towns diversify, what’s next? | PostIndependent.com

As mountain towns diversify, what’s next?

Ryan Summerlin
rsummerlin@postindependent.com
and Lauren Glendenning
The Aspen Times

Ralf Garrison, founder and principal of Destimetrics, a Denver-based firm that analyzes mountain resort economies, speaks at The Assembly, a gathering of mountain tourism industry experts in Denver that coincides with the Snowsports Industries of America Snow Show.

There's a saying in mountain towns that locals came for the winters but stayed for the summers. Unfortunately for those in the mountain tourism industry, visitors don't always follow suit — though Glenwood Springs, a summer destination, struggles with the opposite side of the coin.

A ski industry convention called The Assembly at the end of the month will address how mountain towns can draw more tourists during their slow summer months.

And while the mega resorts discuss how to pull summer guests into town, Glenwood Springs businesses are getting creative to do the same in winter.

Lisa Langer, Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association vice president, said she's sending a staffer to The Assembly in Denver to keep a finger on the pulse of the neighbors.

Glenwood Springs' accommodation tax, the 2.5-percent city lodging tax that feeds the city's tourism promotion fund, was up 10 percent from January to November in 2015 from the year before — after 2014 surpassed the city's banner year of 2008, said Langer. The town's hotels typically are full in the summer and have plenty of vacancies in the winter.

So local attractions and lodges have also been advertising in the winter with the slower season in mind, she said.

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The chamber is kicking off a radio campaign to let Front Rangers know traffic conditions before they venture out on Interstate 70.

"We really focus on the shoulder months in Glenwood Springs," doing a particular type of marketing at different times of the seasons, said Langer.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are times when the tourism picks up. And the X Games in Aspen keeps the area busy, with Glenwood seeing a lot of spillover from the event, said Langer. "I've also seen a lot of romance packages marketed leading up to Valentines Day."

SKIING HERE, TOO

With Troy Hawks, a zealous marketing coordinator, on board for the first year, Sunlight Mountain Resort south of town is doubling down on its Glenwood partnerships.

Sunlight is promoting its Ski, Swim, Stay package that gives guests a deal to ski, soak at Hot Springs Pool and then stay at one of nine Glenwood locations.

Another package gives skiers a deal on lift tickets combined with passes to Iron Mountain Hot Springs.

Hawks has also been bringing in bloggers to experience the area and write reviews that will reach even more readers, said Langer.

Vicky Nash, whose communications firm, Resort Trends Inc., has represented Glenwood Hot Springs and the city, also spearheaded a partnership between Glenwood and four other Colorado locations known for their hot springs.

Pagosa Springs, Ouray, Steamboat Springs, Chaffee County and Glenwood Springs were jointly awarded a Colorado Tourism Office matching grant for $25,000 to market themselves as the Colorado Historic Hot Springs Loop.

That gives them a $50,000 budget. Nash said they'll largely focus on tourists from Japan and China, as well as their domestic markets in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Southern California and Texas.

EMPLOYEE RETENTION

One of the biggest challenges for a business in winter is keeping good employees, said Steve Beckley, owner of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park and Iron Mountain Hot Springs.

Glenwood Caverns has gone from being closed for four months of the year for winter (and closed by 5 p.m. otherwise) to staying open year-round and keeping its attractions running until 9 p.m.

Keeping the park running year-round keeps employee retention high, so workers don't have to find another job in the winter, said Beckley.

Glenwood Caverns still loses substantial amounts of money from November to February, he said, but it's worth it to have those key employees ready to go when business picks back up.

"At the Caverns we see about 10 times more guests in July than in January," said Beckley.

But instead of backing off spending in the slow season, in 2014 the park started Winter on the Mountain, for which the park put up half a million lights, raised a giant Christmas tree, and lit up its tram roller coaster and zipline to keep them running after sunset.

The park is also putting an emphasis on events at the caverns, such as football playoffs watch parties and Friday afternoon club events, said Nancy Herd, the park's general manager and a Glenwood Springs Tourism Promotion Board member.

Those moves have paid off with rising attendance where the park had normally seen a slump, said Beckley.

SKI TOWNS

At The Assembly, focused on winter-heavy towns, a diverse panel of experts during "Tomorrow Land: Fundamentals for the Future" will talk about market trends and "potential disruptors and possible enablers" strategic to the long-term health of mountain resort communities. Christian Knapp, vice president of marketing at Aspen Skiing Co., plans to talk about the challenges of offseason business as well as the affordable-housing crisis affecting Aspen and just about every other mountain resort town in the West.

Knapp said there's an interesting dynamic involving short-term private rentals via sites such as Airbnb and others, a squeeze on affordable housing, wage pressure in the industry and unionization or talks of unionization in places like Beaver Creek, Telluride and Taos, New Mexico.

"Ski companies are being forced to raise wages, which is a good thing, but it's a challenge," Knapp said.

The topic of summer wasn't as big just four or five years ago, Knapp said, noting that Skico has been "super focused" on growing summer business. Summer and offseason growth is important, but the focus on the major topic from last year's Assembly — building the next generation of snowsports enthusiasts — hasn't diminished, either.

Resorts must do that through affordability and technology, among other efforts, Knapp said. Millennials, for example, don't want stuffy hotels, he said. They're looking for fewer amenities and more self-service. They're a generation with smartphones in their pockets at all times. The industry has to focus on speaking to them through better technologies such as apps and e-commerce.

"The long-term challenges include appealing to" Millennials, Knapp said. "I'm not sure their expectations are being met right now."