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City of Boulder's Take from Occupancy Taxes Dropped by 13.5% in 2009,
But Hotels and Attractions Showing Plenty of Optimism for 2010

By Alicia Wallace, Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

June 14, 2010 --As anticipated, the tourism industry in Colorado and the Boulder softened in 2009.

While more people traveled to the Centennial State, they spent less.

Fewer people stayed in Boulder, dropping the city's take from accommodation taxes by 13.5 percent.

During the closing months of 2009, some of the reigning expectations were for the economic recovery to be very slow -- projections that were a bit discordant to the ears of people like Mary Ann Mahoney, executive director of Boulder's Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But after the first few months of 2010, Mahoney and others are hearing a different tune: that the more than $350-million tourism industry in Boulder is seeing signs of improvement.

"There's a lot more optimism on the streets, absolutely," she said.

During the first quarter, Boulder's hotel occupancy rates were flat from the comparable period a year ago, according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau 2010 First Quarter Report. The city closed out 2009 with occupancies down 4 percent.

The city's accommodations tax collections also have fared better, posting gains of 1.04 percent, according to Boulder Finance Department data.

Summer U.S. domestic leisure travel is projected to grow 2.3 percent from last summer, according to U.S. Travel Association's June 9 report. The expectations are for travel to be more frequent and vacationers to spend 37 percent more than last year, according to the report.

"Seeing it initially in some numbers, national trends, articles, tax collections ... they're scooting up, there are more restaurants opening, I think Boulder's in a pretty good position," Mahoney said.

One year after "the world fell off," things are faring much better for the Colorado Chautauqua Association, said Susan Connelly, executive director of the nonprofit that preserves the historic area.

<>The Colorado Chautauqua -- which features lodging, concerts and other events -- recorded its best May ever and the bookings for the 60 cottages and two lodges on site are up 10.5 percent from last year, she said.

The positive report also was reflected down the hill at one of the city's younger hotels, the St. Julien Hotel & Spa.

"Each week looks to be getting a little better," said Peter Walstra, general manager of the 201-room hotel off Ninth and Walnut streets.

Officials at the historic Hotel Boulderado in downtown Boulder are "cautiously optimistic" for improvement during the summer months, said Beverly Silva, director of sales and marketing.

"The summer season is looking pretty strong; we are definitely pacing ahead of last year," she said. "So in other words, where we're at this time, is definitely a better situation than where we were (this time last year)."

The hotel has several summer weekends already sold out, she said.

That being said, Silva said she remains guarded in her optimism, as she's noticed a trend with some of the group and corporate travel: a lot of the trips seem to be funded by government stimulus funds.

"The scary part is when that runs out," she said.

Some wariness also is apparent among visitors, said Jo Niell, the Boulderado's director of guest services.

"Guests are still conscientious about their shopping habits, but they are definitely spending money," Niell said.

When visiting Boulder on a recent weekday, Madison, Wis., resident Jeff Hanson said he definitely is keeping a close eye on his spending.

"I think it's still pretty close to the vest," Hanson, 59, said after he and his family completed the free, half-hour tour of Celestial Seasonings' tea manufacturing plant in Boulder.

An average of 900 people per day tour Celestial Seasonings' plant, getting unobstructed views of the manufacturing process and having their olfactory senses blasted with the robust aroma of peppermint. The company, steeped deeply in the natural products industry, aligns well with the Boulder cachet, said Steve Spencer, guest relations manager.

Spencer, who has logged more than 30 years at the company, established the plant tour about 20 years ago.

In May, visits were up 7 percent as compared

to the same month in 2009. Eleven months through Celestial Seasonings fiscal year, which ends on June 30, traffic is up 9.8 percent.

To see nearly double-digit increases and new records -- including breaking the 1,400-person mark last December -- during a period of economic weakness, Spencer can't help but credit the "free" aspect of the tour.

"It just opens the door," he said. "There's no obstacle."

The increase in tour numbers often translates to increases in gift shop sales. However, those are up "only slightly" at just under 5 percent, Spencer said.

After guests tour a company that Spencer considers to be "parallel" to Boulder, the Celestial Seasonings veteran is quick to inquire about what may be on deck next for the visitors. Unfortunately, he added, most people don't have Boulder on their mind and indicate their intentions are to return to Denver.

Spencer then takes the role of unofficial Boulder spokesman and rattles off other attractions such as the nearby Leanin' Tree museum, the Pearl Street Mall, and the Boulder History Museum, among others.

"I've always thought that Boulder should embrace tourism, because it's inevitable," he said, noting Boulder is sandwiched between top state destinations such as Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park. "I just think we need to manage tourism, embrace it and manage it. ... I think we should be proud of our city because we've done it right."

One recent marketing effort for Boulder took that pride to the next level: by turning a criticism of the city on its head and embracing it.

Downtown Boulder Inc., the nonprofit organization established to enhance the business community at the city's core, recently launched a "The People's Republic of..." campaign, in which ads posted on buses, magazines and other print media poke fun at the tongue-in-cheek criticism used by some to describe Boulder's liberal policies.

The Downtown Boulder ads -- targeted at 34-to-45-year-olds in the Denver Metro market -- use the phrase to show off some of the city's highlights, said Sean Maher, executive director of Downtown Boulder. For example, one ad markets the city's craft brew industry and its rooftop patios with a "The People's Republic of ... Micro Brews and Macro Views." Another, "The People's Republic of... amazingly fresh arugula," highlights the farmers' market.

The campaign comes after a "very difficult" 2009 for the downtown and Pearl Street Mall area, Maher said.

"Most people are up this year over last year, but not close to where they were in 2008," he said.

Some of that business has yet to recover. As measured by people coming into the downtown Boulder visitor center on Pearl Street, visitor traffic is down in the range of 7 percent to 10 percent from last year, he said.

"One of the issues has been the weather," he said. "It hasn't been cooperating."

Maher said he's optimistic that a summer event line-up -- which includes an art fair, upgraded to show "quality over quantity" and an outdoor concert series newly enhanced with a beer garden -- will help drum up additional business for the district.

While Eric Skokan's Black Cat restaurant does not cater to, nor is dependent upon, the tourist trade, the local restaurateur said being committed to customer service attracts visitors of a different breed.

"It's the people who come in to visit their friends, and their friends know of this place off the beaten path," Skokan said. "... Taking care of the customers, treating individuals well, I think that builds a great foundation for a restaurant.

"Now that the times are a little better and people are worried a little bit less, they're going back to the restaurants where they feel taken care of."

Contact Camera Business Writer Alicia Wallace at 303-473-1332 or wallacea@dailycamera.com.

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Copyright (c) 2010, Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.

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