Growing summer business took effort, money | VailDaily.com

Growing summer business took effort, money

The Vail America Days parade — seen here in a 2013 file photo — has always been a big summer draw, but the rest of the summer season has seen strong growth over the past several years. Summer visits to Vail are up roughly 50 percent in the last decade.
Justin McCarty | jmccarty@vaildaily.com |

VAIL — Laurie Mullen keeps busy. The Vail resident and co-owner of West Vail Liquor Mart serves on a number of town boards and commissions, but her favorite is the one dedicated to growing the town’s summer business.

That board, the Vail Local Marketing District Advisory Council, is a big part of a broad effort to grow the town’s summer business. That effort has paid handsome dividends during the past decade — summer visits have grown by about 50 percent during that period.

Even with the increase in business, summer remains a small portion of the town’s 12-month revenue picture, representing about 30 percent of the town’s sales tax revenue. That’s been true for decades, even as summer business has grown. Corresponding increases in winter sales tax collections and the fact that winter lodging rates are significantly higher play a part in it.

But over the past decade or so — including the worst U.S. economic slump in most of our lifetimes — Vail’s strategy and tactics have evolved, from adding events to focusing of summer marketing.

SUMMER MARKETING MUSCLE

Mullen said a big part of the change was a shift in branding several years ago. For a number of years, summer in Vail was marketed as a kind of separate entity from winter. That has since changed to a singular focus on the Vail brand.

“That was a huge step,” Mullen said, adding that there was some early resistance to the idea from Vail Resorts. That has changed as the resort company has put more of its own marketing muscle into summer.

Mullen said marketing has also evolved over the years. This year, in particular, the marketing district is putting extra money into pitching Vail to people in Chicago, Houston and Dallas. There’s also been a greater focus on international guests, especially from Mexico.

But the nuts and bolts of marketing don’t mean much without an attractive place to play. And the fact is that there are a number of mountain towns that offer some combination of music, art, shopping and great weather. That’s where Vail’s events and amenities come in.

Kelli McDonald, the town of Vail’s economic development director, said there’s been a serious focus on refining events. The Vail Farmers’ Market is a great example. That market started small, sponsored at first by the merchants on Meadow Drive. With subsequent support from the town, the market now draws thousands every Sunday.

“It’s a must-do for visitors and locals,” McDonald said, adding that what was once a go-home day for visitors is now a “viable day for business.”

KEEPING THE GROWTH GOING

As the economic slump’s severity started to become apparent, the Vail Town Council put extra money into marketing. That paid off in both winter and summer. In fact, Vail’s summer growth outstripped many other mountain towns.

That momentum has started to slow, though.

In an emailed response to questions about maintaining that momentum, Vail Valley Partnership President Chris Romer said it’s going to be “more challenging than it was to grow over the past 5 years.”

Romer’s email added that the growth of the past several years has mostly maximized weekend visits during peak periods. The key to growing summer beyond its current levels is growing mid-week business, as well as spring and fall.

That mid-week business now comes largely from group business, from sporting events to corporate gatherings. Growing that business could come from destination guests who, like their winter counterparts, tend to stay longer and spend more money.

But expanding the season is also important. Like most of us, Romer is a big fan of September in the Vail Valley. Lodging occupancy during that month already exceeds occupancy in June, and there’s room for more growth, provided the right attractions are available.

While current momentum may have slowed a bit, keeping Vail at or near the head of its competitive pack will get a serious boost starting in 2016, when Vail Resorts rolls out much of its long-planned Epic Discovery summer program.

In a subsequent phone conversation, Romer said he’s a “big fan” of Epic Discovery.

“It’s going to enhance the experience here,” Romer said. “Epic Discovery builds on the momentum we have now.”

Building a bustling summer season, doing the hard work involved in picking public relations and marketing companies to keep Vail’s message fresh, is why Mullen enjoys serving on the marketing district advisory board.

“It’s exciting,” Mullen said. “It’s fun to see your efforts bring results.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com or @scottnmiller.