Summer spending sends Colorado resort towns toward tourism year

Happy-to-spend tourists are back in Colorado, and if their wallets remain open this summer, mountain resort towns are on track for a record year.

After a slow recovery from the recession, many resort towns logged record sales-tax revenues for the 2013-14 ski season. And the rapid growth of summer tourism in resort towns — including Aspen, Vail, Telluride, Steamboat Springs and Breckenridge — is tracking to continue this summer, leaving 2014 looking like the best year ever for high-country destinations.

Mountain communities are working hard to lure visitors to town in the warmer months, using an endless stream of concerts, festivals, contests and general weekly celebrations to fuel growth in summer tourism.

This isn’t just more people in town. This is more people leaving more cash in their wake.

“It appears visitors are spending more in restaurants, lodging and retail,” said Stu Fraser, the mayor of Telluride, where summer sales-tax revenues in 2012 and 2013 eclipsed winter collections, establishing the box-canyon town as a year-round playground.

For the December-March period, sales-tax revenues climbed to $49.9 million in Telluride, more than 21 percent ahead of the previous ski season. Last summer, Telluride rang up almost $51 million in sales-tax revenue, up 24 percent from 2007.

Visitors still flowed toward the Colorado mountains in 2009, 2010 and 2011, but their spending bottomed out and sales-tax collections in resort towns dropped.

The 2013-14 winter saw increased sales-tax revenues for nearly every ski town, including Steamboat Springs, Vail, Aspen, Breckenridge, Crested Butte and Winter Park. All but Steamboat saw last winter’s spending surpass the previous high marks set in the booming 2007-08 season.

Certainly, the bountiful snowfall in Colorado last winter helped, luring skiers pushed from California resorts by drought. Visitation to the state’s ski areas was up 13 percent through February. If that growth continues — which seems likely considering that late-season storms allowed several resorts to push back closing dates — skier visits could surpass the previous record of 12.6 million, set in 2006-07.

But while a scanned ticket is nice, resort communities flourish when visitors dine, shop and bunk in town. Sales-tax revenues indicate there were more of those cherished destination and international visitors at Colorado resorts this winter.

Dick Carleton saw more vacationing guests at his two Breckenridge restaurants, Mi Casa Mexican Restaurant and Cantina and the upscale Hearthstone. “I saw them hit the higher end of the wine list a little more, too.”

Breckenridge inns reported more Front Range visitors spending a night or two. Everyone seemed more inclined to spend a bit more, evidence of a stronger consumer confidence, Carleton said.

Resort innkeepers and hoteliers statewide thrived in 2013-14, with occupancy, room rates and revenues all increasing over the previous season. That indicates growth in destination traffic.

“We are watching the destination guest grow faster than the day visitor, and we are watching summer grow faster than winter,” said Ralf Garrison, whose Denver-based DestiMetrics surveys lodging companies in 19 destinations in the mountain West.

Garrison’s surveys show lodging occupancy staying strong through the summer and fall, with May-October reservations up 8.2 percent compared with last year. As lodges slowly raise rates, projected revenue for resort-lodging businesses is up 13.3 percent, according to DestiMetrics.

“This summer looks like it’s going to kick it,” Garrison said.

While summer revenues in some towns may never surpass winter — when room rates are highest and crowds are most dense — the pace of growth in summer is faster than the snowy months.

There’s more opportunity in summer, particularly in September.

In Colorado, those bright-color fall months are no longer time to huddle and prep for winter. Today’s resorts and mountain communities are starting the summer early and keeping it rolling deep into fall.

Telluride, Aspen, Winter Park and Breckenridge saw highest-ever spending in September.

“A concerted effort to move into the shoulder seasons and to raise the valleys, but not necessarily expanding the peaks, seems to be working,” Telluride’s Fraser said.

Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, jblevins@denverpost.com or twitter.com/jasontblevins

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