The signs of summer are upon us: The grass is green, birds are chirping, tourists are cramming themselves under Balanced Rock, and hotel and motel owners are crossing their fingers.
After a bruising couple summers, local hospitality professionals are hopeful that 2010 will be good to them — or at least nicer than 2009. After all, we are supposed to be coming out of the recession, right?
What remains to be seen, though, is whether a slightly better national economy will mean more people splurging on a vacation. And whether they'll choose the Springs, which has cut its tourism marketing dollars and has attracted negative national headlines for extreme city budget cuts.
Of paramount concern is whether visitors will spend money on hotels and motels. Leslie Lewis, executive director of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, says last year was busy for Manitou, with tourists roaming stores and eating at restaurants, but the hotels were empty. She's hoping that trend is ending.
"The weekends [this May] have been wonderful," she says, "so we know we're drawing Colorado Springs over, and we know we're drawing Denver for the day. We just need them to book more hotel rooms."
Judging by the early signs, this season may be a mixed bag. Some higher-end hotels are reporting good traffic, but less-expensive motels have seen flat, or only slightly improved, occupancy rates. And just about everyone says bookings are more last-minute than they used to be.
Small time, big time
In the 32 years that Villa Motel (affiliated with Americas Best Value Inn) has been in Manitou Springs, manager Julie Buchanan says, business has always been up-and-down.
One big "down" came between 2008 and 2009, when sales plummeted 20 percent. But things are looking a little better these days. May 2010 looks no worse than May 2009, with a third or more of the motel occupied on average. Buchanan has a feeling this might signal an upswing.
"I feel like the bleeding's stopped," she says. "I don't think it's going to go a whole lot lower."
Just up the road, at the well-established Silver Saddle Motel, manager Artur Bryja says he, too, is encouraged by the number of people staying at the hotel, especially in light of last year's tough season.
Nearby, at the brand-new Manitou Springs Days Inn, manager Margie Klimczak doesn't even manage cautious optimism. She says folks aren't making many reservations, and the people who drop in usually only stay one night.
"What I would expect for this time of year, it's low," she says. "It seems like people are here, but they're not staying."
Bill Kenline, owner of the Rodeway Inn on South Nevada Avenue, has a similar view: "We're probably just about the same place we were last year, which is nothing to write home about."
Everyone from Buchanan to Kenline would love instead to be singing the tune of ritzier hotels and resorts.
"People just in general look like the light came on and they want to travel again," says Lori Shook, director of sales and marketing for the three-diamond Marriott hotel at 5580 Tech Center Drive.
Shook says the Marriott has enjoyed an increase in business travel, including conventions, and an even bigger increase in leisure travel. Shook says the hotel is meeting projections, with its 309 rooms usually fully booked on weekends.
Over at the five-star Broadmoor, spokeswoman Allison Scott says business is exceeding projections for this year. And knowledgeable sources say that both the Antlers Hilton and Cheyenne Mountain Resort are busy and profitable, though neither returned calls this week.
Waiting for a long time
Ask the owners of the tiny motels. Ask the managers of the big resorts. Ask Manitou's Lewis. They all say the same thing: People are putting off reservations until the last minute.
They have different theories about why. There's uncertainty about jobs and budgets, less anxiety about hotels filling up. But whatever the reason, people are waiting.
At the Villa, Buchanan says that right now, she's just getting bookings for June. As for July and August, she says: "I'm confident that people will book. I just think they'll wait 'til June."
The Silver Saddle's Bryja says he rarely gets bookings far in advance, except for the busiest weekends — holidays, festivals, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
Kenline says people book about a week out for the Rodeway, or just walk in. And plenty of folks change the length of their stay once they arrive.
Even the Marriott's Shook says people are waiting longer, even booking business conventions just two weeks to a month out.
Working the market
The hospitality industry knows that when the economy goes down, sales plummet. After all, most people consider travel a luxury. At the same time, aggressive marketing of the state and Pikes Peak region is thought by some to ease the effects of economic dips on hotels and motels — or at least offset the effects of negative headlines about the city's darkened streetlights and browning parks.
Unfortunately, area lodgers haven't been getting much help. Manitou has increased its tourism advertising budget, from $143,000 in 2009 to $177,900 in 2010, but the big boys are cutting back. Experience Colorado Springs, the local convention and visitors bureau, will have a budget of under $2.8 million this year, down from nearly $3.2 million in 2006. The cut in funding is due to City Council skimming money off the Lodgers & Automobile Rental Tax, which funds the bureau.
The bureau claims that for every $1 spent in advertising, it has a $100 economic impact. In 2009, for instance, the bureau spent $2.9 million, but says its economic impact was $355 million.
The spending cut upsets some motel and hotel owners, Kenline included. He says that with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the bad publicity Arizona is getting for its new immigration laws, many people are changing travel plans. This would have been a perfect time for an aggressive advertising campaign to capture some of that displaced business, Kenline says.
"Colorado could have really benefited," he says. "When they do have a program in place, it does impact our business, there's no doubt about that."
The state of Colorado, meanwhile, is ramping up a new campaign with the slogan, "In a land called Colorado."
But the state's tourism budget is down from around $20 million a few years ago to $15 million for the fiscal year starting in July. The state estimated it brought back $13 for every $1 it spent in fiscal year 2009.