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The invisible industry of tourism

Rob Levine //June 13, 2011//

The invisible industry of tourism

Rob Levine //June 13, 2011//

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of six articles written by business and community leaders who participated in the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation’s “Colorado Experience” excursion to Colorado Springs in late April.

I recently had the good fortune of participating in the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation’s Colorado Experience program. One of the breakout sessions was entitled “Tourism’s Role in the Pike’s Peak Economy.” Having been in Colorado’s tourism business for 33 years, I have heard a “number” of similar presentations (100 is a number … so is 1,000). To be honest, the material isn’t always new.

Happily, Doug Price, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau; and Ford Frick, managing director of BBC Research & Consulting; made this session entertaining. Doug spoke about the branding, or the lack thereof, of Colorado Springs, and his desire to create a cohesive brand for the region.

I went to school in the Springs for four years, and still have reason to go back at least once a year or so. Even with that experience, I’m not sure I could explain the Colorado Springs brand. In his defense, Doug started the Colorado Springs job earlier this year, so we can hardly expect him to be completely up to speed on all things Broadmooresque; let alone to have choreographed the kind of inclusive sessions and tactical plans generally associated with a proactive branding strategy. Happily, he does have firsthand knowledge of the general desire people have to return once they have visited for the first time.

Doug also spoke about tourism as the “invisible industry,” pointing out the enormous role it plays in the state’s economy (roughly $10 billion per year in direct spending), and yet how little attention is sometimes given to its importance as an economic driver. That is, until something catastrophic happens like Hurricane Katrina or a summer of Colorado wildfires. It seems only then that the regrettable effects of business lost are newsworthy.

Because we’re a “nation of shopkeepers” (my words, not his), those in the tourism business need to be more assertive about telling our story. Although our statewide budget for tourism promotion is OK, that’s all it is. With our myriad of attractive assets, and with some of our key competitors thinking about cutting back (Texas and Florida to name a couple), we ought to be pushing down on the pedal, not agonizing over how to simply maintain. But that’s a story for another day.

Following Doug Price, Ford Frick spoke about Christo’s ambitious proposal to drape some of the Arkansas River between Salida and Cañon City. He pointed out the oddity of an economist discussing a large piece of art, and then proceeded to offer some pretty insightful thoughts. The Bureau of Land Management’s environmental impact statement (EIS) is due out soon and will address the project’s myriad of impacts with regard to crowding, traffic, environmental disturbance and more.

Ford explained that the future of the project weighs heavily on that EIS. Not that it will automatically happen if the EIS is favorable, but a negative report will almost surely kill it. Naturally, he also talked about the economic impacts, as is his specialty.

Based on data from a wide variety of Christo’s other projects (there’s more of them than you might think), it’s reasonable to expect 400,000 people will come see what Christo describes as a “gentle and temporary disturbance of the landscape.”

While it’s only meant to be in place for two weeks, it will take far longer than that to assemble. Obviously, there are direct positive economic impacts from such an event. In this case, it’s estimated to be $121 million. Sure, that may be high or low, but it’s a reasonable expectation. Those kinds of predictions are routine, and Ford is pretty good at them.

What was more intriguing about this particular project, however, is that many of the visitors who are likely to visit this installation come from a very different market than we are used to. These are people who probably wouldn’t come to Colorado otherwise. Not that they won’t be enamored with our spectacular state once they’re here. It’s just that our usual appeal is not what typically reaches art aficionados from Japan, for instance.

The Colorado marketing message is a good one. It is, however, targeted toward our “regular” audience (and appropriately so). Some of them have been here before and some have not. Either way, they are people who are likely to be impressed with all that the American West has to offer, from our friendly nature to our vast recreational opportunities.

People coming to Colorado to see a landscape art project represent a very new audience for us. It’s also likely to be the only way we’ll ever reach them. Now that’s exciting. Only time will tell if they have the propensity to come back, but as Doug Price will tell you (and as I certainly believe) whoever they are, once they’ve been here … we’ve got ’em.

Combined with a well-executed marketing strategy based on our state’s existing brand and audience, that only spells more success for our tourism industry in the future.
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