Vail Valley starting to see optimism surrounding the tourism industry |

Vail Valley starting to see optimism surrounding the tourism industry

Many businesses are still struggling, but there are positive signs

It’s been a tough year in the tourism business, but there are positive signs for the coming weeks and months.
John LaConte,

The year, and counting, of the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on just about everyone. The travel and tourism industries are no exception. But there are signs of better days to come.

At the Sitzmark Lodge in Vail, general manager Jeanne Fritch said people were booking rooms throughout the pandemic. Most of those bookings were for stays months in advance, and few of those people ended up cancelling their plans.

But, Fritch said, more people are hanging on to their reservations every month.

Fritch said she spoke in late 2020 with longtime guests who always come at the end of February. Fritch recalled asking those guests if they still planned to come. Their reply: “We’re doctors; we’re going to have our vaccine by then.”

The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has been a key part of building optimism in the tourism business.

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At the Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa in Avon, general manager Kristen Pryor said a combination of vaccines, declining case counts and good snow in February helped spur bookings.

Pryor said there’s a sense of optimism building as the weather warms, and there’s more daylight in our days.

Group’s slower recovery

Pryor added there’s been a “lot of interest in weddings and smaller meetings” at the hotel. But group business, a key part of most lodges’ reservation picture, is likely to recover more slowly than individual travel.

That’s actually created opportunity at some properties.

Scott Gubrud, the sales and marketing director of the Four Seasons Resort and Residences in Vail, said the lack of group business has increased room availability for individual travelers. But, Gubrud added, group business booked for June forward is picking up.

But group business recovery could take some time.

Linda Hill is president of Hill Aevium, an Edwards-based advertising agency with clients primarily in the tourism business. Hill said it could be 2022 before group business — particularly conferences — returns to something like normal.

But, Hill added, she and her clients are starting to see “tremendous” pent-up demand for leisure travel. She noted that when the National Park Service recently opened its camping reservation system, demand quickly crashed those servers.

Hill’s a member of the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association. A motorcycle-riding group of association members a couple of months ago started making reservations for a trip in June. Lodging reservations were already starting to fill up along that route, she said.

Still, Hill said, a lot of bookings are coming either within a month, or even a week, of travel.

Jeff Andrews is the regional business recovery coordinator for the Northwest Colorado Regional Council of Governments. Andrews said he’s seeing greater optimism from businesses that rely on tourism, particularly heading into the spring and summer.

Andrews noted that many businesses are still struggling, due in large part to restrictions on service businesses.

Andrews said while there have been declines — often steep ones — in the lodging businesses, there’s been fairly strong demand for condo and home rentals.

“We’re seeing families more comfortable in a home with a kitchen,” Andrews said, adding that only time will tell if that trend becomes permanent.

People are still driving

What isn’t going away anytime soon is the increased reliance on driving vacations, and the willingness of people to drive greater distances. Trips up to 1,000 miles or more have become more common as many travelers have decided to eschew air travel for now.

Hill noted that the Colorado Tourism Office is preparing a May rollout of a summer marketing campaign focused on regional drive travel. That campaign may go national as the season progresses.

Aside from optimism, many business people have simply become accustomed to restrictions and working within them.

“There’s a feeling that ‘We can manage this, and we’re going to have to live with it,’” Vail Chamber & Business Association Director Alison Wadey said.

Wadey said many association members are getting comfortable with being able to do a bit more forecasting.

“They can run their business instead of waiting for what’s next,” Wadey said.

But, Wadey added, we’re still far from a normal business environment.

“For every person who’s able to manage, there’s another having a rough go,” Wadey said. “People are still going to get sick. … It will be telling to see at the end of the season which (businesses) made it through.”

Some good news

• More people are receiving COVID-19 vaccines.

• Rentals of condos, private vacation rentals and homes are down only about 10% from pre-pandemic levels.

• Interest in wedding bookings at the Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa is rising.

• Leisure bookings are close to those in normal years at Vail’s Four Seasons Resort and Residences.

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