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Al White: Tourism making ‘slow, but steady recovery’

Caddie Nath
Summit Daily News

Lounging on a bench in Breckenridge’s Blue River Plaza amid dozens of milling out-of-towners, Al White is feeling optimistic.

Visits to Colorado in 2010 were at a record high, the director of the Colorado Tourism Office reports.

Spending among tourists was up.

And Breckenridge is doing everything right to keep the tourism industry on the road to recovery.

“Breck is doing a great job,” the former state senator said. “You’ve got a diversified product. You’ve got the historic opportunities, the beautiful mountain vistas, hiking, bicycling. You come to Breckenridge, you can do it all, and that’s what people are looking for.”

White spent Thursday morning in Breck, discussing the importance of cycling to Colorado tourism and taking a short bike ride through town with Mayor John Warner as part of Breck Bike Week.

After pedaling through one of the epicenters of Colorado ski tourism, White said he thinks things are finally looking up.

“People are tired of delaying their gratification. They’re tired of staying home,” he said. “I think we’re seeing a slow but steady recovery.”

The local numbers tend to support White’s prognosis.

Though May was disappointing, the towns and county are showing a gentle incline in sales tax revenue year-to-date. Meanwhile Keystone Resort had a stellar year for skier visits, which were up 7 percent, and Breckenridge Ski Resort didn’t do too badly either, with a 1 percent increase in visits, according to stats released by Vail Resorts last month.

But White isn’t babysitting local trends. He likens his job as the state chief of tourism to a car manufacturer. He makes the product. Or at the very least he makes people in other parts of the country aware of the product: Colorado. But once guests have picked up their bags at DIA, he says, individual businesses, resorts and municipalities become the metaphorical dealerships, and it’s their responsibility to get the customer, who is already interested in the product, through the front door.

“It’s our job to market the state nationally and internationally,” White said. “Once our office gets somebody interested in coming to the state, then it’s up to Breckenridge (to attract them).”

The tourism office is spending approximately $10 million a year to uphold its half of that bargain. And, though current marketing efforts seem to be working – as evidenced by the roughly 51 million visits to Colorado in 2010 – White said the state is competing with places like Michigan, which spends about $30 million on marketing, or even California, which is closer to $50 million.

Ultimately, the object of White’s attention is market share. He would like to see Colorado’s portion of the tourism pie increased to 3 percent – which would be a .4 percent climb. It doesn’t sound like much, but this is a valuable pie. Each tenth of a percentage point represents approximately $450 million in private sector spending for Colorado’s tourism industry, yielding $40 – $60 million in sales tax revenue. Reaching White’s 3 percent goal would garner a little more than $1.5 billion in tourism spending for Colorado.

But increasing market share requires investment, and the tourism office’s funding did take a hit this year, albeit a very small one considering the total $1 billion budget shortfall.

“I think our legislature recognizes the benefits of tourism as an economic engine,” White said. “We know that when we put money into our economic engine that within 12 months we see results.”

The results are an estimated $7.60 in state and local revenue for every $1 invested in tourism. It’s probably enough, White says, to insulate Colorado from drastic measures like those taken in Washington, where legislators shuttered the tourism office altogether.

For Colorado, Washington’s draw back on marketing is an opportunity. White’s office is developing a new marketing campaign to be launched in the spring, while Breckenridge is making the most of a few extra dollars in the marketing piggy bank from a 1 percent lodging tax increase approved by voters in November. For now, Summit County is poised to continue to its tourism recovery.

“I feel very optimistic about the next 12 to 18 months,” White said.


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