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Post-COVID Road Trip Research – Eyewitness Report

By Ralf Garrison, Destination Resort Advisor, the Insights Collective
Brought to you by the Vail Daily and the Insights Collective
Activities like cycling are expected to be popular with resort town visitors this summer season, and communities may want to prepare accordingly. (Photo by Ralf Garrison)
Activities like cycling are expected to be popular with resort town visitors this summer season, and communities may want to prepare accordingly. (Photo by Ralf Garrison)
Listen to the accompanying podcast from Ralf Garrison and Insights Collective here

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To fully understand a tourist, you must “be” a tourist, right? 

INSIGHTS FROM THE VAIL VALLEY

Planning for an overdue surge of tourists in Vail

By Scott N. Miller

After more than a year of living with various levels of public health restrictions, people in the Vail Valley are expecting company, and lots of it, this summer. 

Events are a big part of the Vail Valley Foundation’s mission. People there are planning, and re-planning, just how to hold events ranging from concerts to the GoPro Mountain Games.

Tom Boyd, VVF senior director of public relations, communications and the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, said event strategy used to have a “Plan A,” perhaps with a backup plan for weather. Boyd said this year plans have to include not only current public health restrictions, but also anticipate fewer restrictions with greater capacity and eventually no restrictions on occupancy at venues including the amphitheater and the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek.

Every one of those steps requires communication with public health officials, event sponsors and stakeholders and, of course, the general public.

“That’s more important now than ever,” Boyd said. “It’s important to get out the information about what we know and don’t know. Then folks make a decision based on (that information).”

Avon returns to major events, including holiday fireworks show

In Avon, special events manager Danita Dempsey said information coming in now indicates people are ready to “get out, get together and enjoy.” The town is doing everything possible to help allow people to have fun in a safe environment and planning a robust summer schedule. Avon’s main venue, Nottingham Park, is uniquely situated for safe fun, given its size.

Dempsey said the town is planning big events, including the annual Salute to the USA Fourth of July celebration. Plans now call for the event to be held in its traditional format, with entertainment, food and fireworks.

While drought is expected to grip the high country again this summer, Dempsey noted that Avon’s show has been cancelled only twice in the 15 years she’s been working for the town. Events can shrink if public health orders require it, Dempsey said.

Restaurants cautiously prepare for huge visitor numbers

Cameron Douglas owns the Montauk and El Segundo restaurants in Vail. Douglas those businesses have kept “pretty much” all the staff from the winter with the expectation of a big summer.

With more people vaccinated every day, a strong real estate market and more full-time residents, Douglas said, “We have nothing but high expectations.

“Vail’s been very fortunate,” he added.

Douglas said the summer from July to September was as busy as December through February of the recently-ended ski season. He expects more of the same, and then some, this year.

“We’re ready to crush it,” Douglas said. “We’re expecting a 10 to 20% boost this summer, and last summer we (were up) 10 to 20%.”

With little historical data or hard research to guide us down the post-COVID road to recovery, I’ve selflessly volunteered to do some personal, experiential road travel research – a distinct departure from the Insight Collective’s disciplined, evidence-based approach – intended for those readers planning for mud season travel or preparing for summer tourism. Personal observations and anecdotes follow:

The Scenario: Our trip plan emulated nearly half of the U.S. adult population and many of the older “boomers” who are now inoculated and free to travel and congregate, subject to CDC and local guidelines. And with vaccinations now open to all adults and restrictions dropping rapidly, there was an underlying feeling of impunity and exuberance among road warriors most everywhere we went. It sorta feels like maybe we’ve forgotten but are now reawakening to what normal life feels like.



Transportation: A driving road trip to the warmer Southwest was a no-brainer, so we loaded the SUV with a luggage pod, bike rack and our research tools (golf, camping, hiking, pickleball, biking gear, etc.) and took off. Road travel was pretty straightforward but early season road construction has already begun. Lots of RV traffic seemed to constipate traffic – reminiscent of days gone by – and gas prices were on the rise. Perhaps we’ve gotten spoiled this past year?

Lodging: Catching up with friends and family is top of list for many but tricky when conflicting pandemic protocols or ideologies are in play; early, honest communication and empathy is recommended. Roadside motels were readily available, but campgrounds were limited and RV parks were already busy, requiring reservations well in advance. Some Walmart stores apparently once again offer their parking lots for overflow RV camping; imagine a tailgate party, sponsored by makers of Geritol and catered by Walmart, to get the idea. 



Activities: Attractions and activities were based on COVID-appropriate outdoor options, to which we added dining al fresco at every opportunity and our perpetual ritual of taking on fewer calories than we burn off: 

·       Hiking: With more people outdoors, trails are busier, advanced reservations are increasing and masking protocol is anybody’s guess.

·       Biking: All kinds – road, mountain, electric and motorcycle – were already on a roll but have exploded in this last year. New bikes are hard to get, bike lanes are busy and evidence of increased bike infrastructure is apparent in some places (and non-existent in others). That turned out to be a good indicator of communities that had anticipated and welcomed travelers like us. 



·       Golfing: Has enjoyed a resurgence, making tee times tough to get and requiring use of reservation systems, some of which felt archaic and often prioritize local residents. Not for everyone. It’ll be interesting to see how many newbies stick with golf as traditional options re-open. 

Synopsis: Our experience was a good one. But understanding COVID protocols and local expectations was tricky; virtually every location and situation was unique, often not readily apparent and occasionally awkward. Best info was found on the front doors of retail and restaurants. We always started out masked, then adjusted as appropriate. 

Worth it? Definitely! But not reminiscent of the relaxing, hassle-free vacations of old. Bring lowered expectations, patience and a good book. Anecdotally, we didn’t experience much local pushback, but did notice a few local folks checking out the dirty Jeep, decorated with outdoor gear and Colorado license plates, before a welcoming smile appeared.

ABOUT INSIGHTS COLLECTIVE

Insights Collective; a Tourism Economy Think Tank and Resource Center – is a collaboration of destination travel industry experts who are collaborating and working, together with mountain resort communities and their stakeholders, to understand, plan, and navigate through the emerging tourism marketplace.  http://www.TheInsightsCollective.com  /  info@theinsightscollective.com

The Resort Town Counterpart

So, having driven down the road (to recovery) as a visitor, I’m reverting to the resort town vocational perspective and concluding with a few personal observations as food for thought: 

·       Demand = Busy Summer Pent-up demand is clearly in effect, supported by other evidence, and should be anticipated, particularly for smaller, more remote leisure destinations that feature outdoor activities.

·       Supply = Preparedness for Capacity Management If “forewarned is forearmed,” then you and your community should be anticipating and preparing to manage visitor capacity in a way that works for all concerned – not just visitors, but the conditions and expectations under which they are welcome by local residents. Under-capacity or anticipation can look just like over-tourism and can lead to misunderstandings about the true marketplace forces at play.

Rhetorical Question: Is Tourism Only About Tourists? 

Consider tourism not as the only goal, but a viable means toward the broader goal of a viable, economically sustainable lifestyle for those who live, work and rely on resort towns for body and soul. Not a silver bullet or panacea for sure, but when managed properly and weighed against other options, tourism offers a manageable balance of benefits and detriments with the bonus of a not otherwise achievable lifestyle for residents.

There you have it.


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