Vail Valley group business has long road to recovery
Mountain Travel Symposium will return to Vail in 2022
Here’s the good news: The annual Mountain Travel Symposium will return to Vail for the first time since 2008. The less-good news: The event will return in 2022.
The symposium is a combination of business networking and education. Ski groups from around the world come to the symposium, along with vendors who want to do business with those groups.
Mountain Travel Symposium Content Director Catherine Shaw said the symposium will often bring 1,000 people or more to a destination. Organizers rotate the symposium between resorts.
The 2008 symposium, held at what was then the Vail Cascade, packed big and small meeting rooms. There were seminars and parties, including a concert in Lionshead by Super Diamond, a Neil Diamond tribute band.
The 2020 symposium, set for April, was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021 event will be a virtual affair.
The 2022 event will be in person in some form, depending on whether large gatherings and international travel are feasible.
The Mountain Travel Symposium is run by Northstar Travel Group, a firm that organizes big and small meetings and conferences.
Those business-related meetings all but vanished in 2020, and few are on the 2021 calendar, at least for now.
An important sector
Group business, from corporations to professional associations to weddings and family reunions, is an important part of the valley’s tourism business. That business all but vanished in 2020.
Vail Valley Partnership Director of Sales Kim Brussow said that hit has “been very challenging” with lodges and sales departments. The partnership eliminated its sales department — two people — leaving Brussow alone to work to bring groups to the valley.
Brussow noted that the few groups still traveling — primarily weddings and other family events — average about 25 people. Business groups routinely bring hundreds of attendees. In addition, the length of stay is down, to two or three days instead of five days or more.
The loss of group business isn’t unique to the Vail Valley. Colorado Tourism Office Director Cathy Ritter said the entire state has been hit by the loss of group business.
In response, the tourism office is working with the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association and Destination Colorado to develop information to present to potential clients. That information works to explain why Colorado is a good destination for groups. Ritter added that Gov. Jared Polis’ office is also working to “create some certainty” about attracting groups.
“We’re mapping out a potential timeline, based on our best evidence … for destinations to begin booking for future events,” Ritter said.
The state groups are working on a video explaining why Colorado is a good place for meetings and events. Ritter said that video will go beyond the state’s obvious physical attributes, and will include the state’s public health practices and its successes in distributing COVID-19 vaccines.
That information is going to be important, Ritter said, adding that current research indicates that group and leisure travelers have “a great deal of concern” about public safety practices.
“A planner’s No. 1 priority is to keep people safe,” Ritter said.
And, while the tourism office’s primary goal in the past has been attracting leisure travel, Ritter said the new work on attracting groups is part of a broader plan to restart the state’s tourism industry.
When travelers return, municipal and county sale tax collections start to recover, and that affects municipal services.
At this point, 2019’s tourism numbers will be the benchmark for recovery, but that recovery could take some time.
But all those interviewed for this story believe group business will recover, in time.
“I think we will see a period of time when hybrid (virtual and in-person) meetings are the order of the day,” Ritter said. But, she added, she believes meetings in the future — perhaps later in 2021 going into 2022 — will strongly resemble meetings held in pre-COVID days.
Brussow agreed, adding that while virtual meetings are the norm today, that norm isn’t sustainable.
“People want to meet in person,” Brussow said.
In addition, hybrid meetings add cost in the form of added technological requirements.
That desire to meet in person is starting to show up in conversations Brussow has had with possible clients.
“We’ve gotten a lot of potential business for 2022 and beyond,” Brussow said. Don’t expect much group business in 2021, though.
“It’s going to be a slower rise — it may not happen in 2021,” Brussow said. But, she added, “We’re going to get back to business.”
• 23.7%: Group travel share of May — October 2019 Vail Valley lodging occupancy.
• 26%: Leisure travel share of Vail Valley occupancy for the same period.
• 24%: Leisure travel share of 2020 May — October Vail Valley occupancy.
• 4.3%: Group travel share of Vail Valley occupancy for the same period in 2020.
Source: Vail Valley Partnership