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Conferences come to out-of-the way resort

Scott N. Miller
Jason Dewey/Special to the DailyThe Telluride Conference Center helps the summer economy in Mountain Village and Telluride, but it's hard work to bring groups in.
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MOUNTAIN VILLAGE, Colo. ” When lawyers and paramedics hit town in late spring, people in restaurants and bike shops notice.

The Telluride Conference Center benefits the bottom line of local businesses and the wallets of waitresses and clerks in Mountain Village and Telluride. But the center relies on public subsidies for its operating expenses, and getting groups to come to one of the state’s most remote ski resort is constant hard work.

The Telluride Conference Center is a small-scale version of what some in Vail would like to build: a center not based in a hotel and built with tax dollars that books guests into hotels elsewhere in the resort.

This year, the center is at its busiest in June and July, filled with groups ranging from the Colorado Bar Association to Colorado Ski Country USA to a paramedics’ association.

In between are various local meetings, concerts and weddings, and the event calendar on the center’s Web site indicates there are plenty of dates available in the late summer and fall.

Heather Rommel, now the center’s executive director, started work at the facility before it opened its doors in 1999. She’s seen the center go from an expensive novelty that catered to companies riding the end of that decade’s high-tech boom to one that now has to work hard to attract business.

“At the beginning sales seemed easier,” Rommel said. “We were new and had wired in data ports and all that. The dot-com boom was going, and we had everything they wanted here. Back then, there weren’t a lot of places that were wired with all the data ports, and there were no budget constraints.”

But that boom went bust, and the tech conferences vanished as quickly as the built-on-sand companies that booked the center.

Meanwhile, conference centers upgraded to accommodate groups’ technical needs.

While the captains of industry who have vacation homes in and around still bring in the occasional corporate retreat, a tighter-run economy and Telluride’s location makes it more difficult for groups to come. There are other complications.

“Groups have so many choices. It’s hard to compete,” Rommel said.

One of the biggest hurdles is the fact that the Telluride center is a stand-alone facility, while groups today favor meeting space in the hotels where they stay, Rommel said. There’s a hotel virtually next door to the center, but it’s not big enough for everyone at a conference to stay there.

“Groups don’t want to take a shuttle in,” Rommel said. Even the Mountain Lodge, a hotel just a few moments away by gondola, doesn’t see a huge amount of conference-related business.

Economic ripples

Any group that comes in, though, has an effect on the local economy, both in Mountain Village and Telluride.

“Most of Mountain Village doesn’t stay open this time of year,” said Tasha Egge, a waitress at Smuggler’s Brewpub in Telluride, about a two-block walk from the gondola. “We get really busy when they have things up there.”

When the paramedics hit town recently, the crew at Smuggler’s noticed.

“We didn’t know they were in town until they all came in,” said waitress Tiffany Worrell. “I made terrific tips that night.”

Mountain Village is quiet in early June, but a few shops are open, and the groups that come to the conference center provide a welcome boost.

“More people in town is going to bring everybody more business,” said Sean Harrington at Telluride Sports. Tuning a bike wheel in the shop across the plaza from the conference center, Harrington said some groups are a little more lively than others when it comes to bike rentals. But, he added, the business does trickle throughout the two towns.

Harrington, who also works at a new Sheraton in Telluride, said that hotel gets a business bump when groups are in town. And during a recent Colorado Bar Association conference the Mountain Lodge wasn’t full, but there were quite a few lawyers there.

“We get a lot of business from the center,” said Amy Winfrey, a concierge at the Mountain Lodge.

Besides the business, Winfrey said having the center at Mountain Village has been good for locals.

“It brings acts in,” she said. “We have the arts ball, the fashion show, all kinds of things.”

How the cash flows

Tax money built the conference center, and tax money is still needed to pay for operations and marketing. Last year, that subsidy was around $333,000, down from more than $1 million in 2000.

In return, though, the center brings in money.

“It’s been a really important part of our economy,” said Penelope Gleason, owner of the Boot Doctor in Mountain Village. Gleason, a former president of the town’s merchant’s association and a current member of the homeowners association’s board of directors, said the center has been a good investment.

Rommel said people attending conferences spent $2.5 million for lodging in 2004. The same people spent another $2.8 million in Mountain Village and Telluride.

A lot of that money is being spent by firefighters, paramedics and other associations that come to the center. It’s not a real free-spending crowd, Gleason said.

“It’s a good time to have sales,” she said. “They appreciate coming to a hoity-toity resort and getting a bargain.”

At the Telluride Coffee Company, co-owner Jamie Rojo pours warm beverages for primarily a local crowd. “We stay open through the off-season primarily for them,” Rojo said. “But if people are staying here, they’ll walk by and come in.”

More visitors at the conference center would be nice, Rojo said, and the business it brings is welcome.

“It helps out a lot,” she said.

Getting there

In the days before the busy summer festival season, both Telluride and Mountain Village are pretty quiet. Without a draw, like a festival or a conference, it’s hard to attract day-trippers.

The experience of a couple of bar association conference participants is a good example.

Patrick Conlan of Boston flew into Denver, then caught a flight on a small plane to Telluride. He landed in Telluride after just about a half-day of travel, but the last leg “was white knuckle all the way,” he said.

Mel Revelas, who works for the bar association, drove from Denver to Telluride, about a six-hour trip. A Colorado native, Revelas said she loves the San Juan Mountains.

“But it’s hard to get to this part of the state,” she said.

Still, both said they’d like to come back.

“It’s beautiful here,” Conlan said. “It’s definitely worth the trip.”

That’s the sort of thing people in Mountain Village love to hear. The theory is that people who come to a conference in the summer will be more likely to book a winter vacation.

“I’d come back every year if I could afford it,” Revelas said.

Lessons for Vail

Rommel said Vail voters, who will decide this fall whether to build a conference center, can learn some lessons from Mountain Village’s experience.

“It’s worth the work,” she said. “But it’s a lot of work.”

A conference center should control its own food and beverage operations, Rommel said.

“Food and beverage is where your potential to make money is,” she said. “Otherwise it’s just room and equipment rental, and those aren’t very lucrative.”

Even if a conference center runs the food in-house, local restaurants still benefit, Rommel said. A three-day conference will have two breakfasts, a couple of lunches, food for breaks and perhaps one dinner. That leaves times for people at the conference to find other places to eat.

Good group sales are important, too, especially for hotels that are more than a short walk away. And how those lodges treat guests is critical, Rommel said.

“If people have a bad experience, the potential is there for them to not come back,” Rommel said.

More important, though, is the ability to adapt, Gleason said.

“You can’t build anything and sit there and expect people to come,” she said. “You’ve got to have a plan and then keep changing it. We can make changes and implement them quickly.”

Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 613, or smiller@vaildaily.com.

Vail Daily, Vail Colorado


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