Tourism officials shifted messaging and dollars when pandemic hit
As COVID-19 numbers improved, safe travel was encouraged to help boost the economy
Tourism was one of the industries hit hardest throughout the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, and tourism organizations had to make major shifts in their marketing operations — mostly away from encouraging travel, though not completely.
Tourism officials initially slammed the brakes on marketing in the early stages of the pandemic. The Breckenridge Tourism Office “went dark” in paid advertising from mid-March to mid-June 2020, according to CEO and President Lucy Kay. She said the organization shifted its funding to safety and responsible travel messaging as well as information on what to expect upon arrival.
She said the organization continued encouraging visits to Summit County but not to the extent it normally would.
“As a destination marketing and management organization, you can think of our work throughout the pandemic on a pendulum,” tourism office spokesperson Austyn Dineen wrote in an email. “When restrictions and concerns are high, we swing into education/safety and management for those who are choosing to travel. When restrictions/concerns relax, we swing more heavily into inspirational marketing space.”
Breckenridge Tourism Office’s approved budget in 2020 was $5.6 million, which was about $49,000 less than its 2019 budget. In 2020, the office returned $750,000 from its unused budget back to the town of Breckenridge and $150,000 to Breckenridge Ski Resort. Its 2021 approved budget is nearly $4.4 million.
As pandemic restrictions eased in Summit County, Kay said paid advertising returned slowly and that it intentionally excluded areas with high COVID-19 numbers. International advertising still has yet to make a comeback.
“We have to balance keeping our businesses viable with public health safety,” Kay wrote in an email.
Since July 4th of this year, Summit County has averaged almost three visitors per resident, according to data presented earlier this month by Summit County Public Health Director Amy Wineland. Compared to counties with similar population sizes across the U.S. — between 27,000 and 37,000 — Summit County continues to have the highest number of overnight visitors.
In counties with high vaccination rates, the rate among visitors is often lower than residents, according to Wineland, who showed data detailing that a portion of visitors are coming from states with low vaccination rates.
Summit County’s most recent rate of fully vaccinated residents is 79%, and 88% have received at least one dose.
Using mobility data, the county’s health department calculated what it called an “imported unvaccinated multiplier,” or a measure of the impact visitors have on the number of unvaccinated people in the county. A value greater than one indicates visitors are causing the share of unvaccinated people in a county to be larger than the resident vaccination numbers indicate.
Summit County came in at 1.39, the second highest number in the state behind only San Miguel County, home of Telluride. That brings Summit County’s vaccination rate including visitors down to below 70%.
“We definitely are not able to fully benefit from our high vaccination rate here in our community because it has been diluted from our visitors,” Wineland said at the meeting. “We love our visitors; we need our visitors. They’re key to our economic recovery, but it is important to keep this in mind as we’ve been able to do pretty much everything we needed and wanted to do this summer without restriction.”
Outside of Summit County, the Colorado Tourism Office changed its marketing strategies, as well, shifting focus to safety and responsible travel. Jill Corbin, interim director of the state tourism office, said it paused all traditional out-of-state messaging designed to drive visitation. It didn’t resume out-of-state marketing until vaccination numbers increased and the office got approval from the governor to do so, beginning Memorial Day of this year.
The office runs on a fiscal year that begins July 1 and ends June 30, so its 2021 budget is the one that saw cuts due to the pandemic. Its 2020 budget was $20.2 million, 2021 was $16.5 million and its 2022 budget is $29.2 million due to the addition of $10 million from the state’s meeting and event incentive program.
Corbin said the biggest cutback to the 2021 fiscal year budget was $2 million from the office’s international budget. Other cuts included the elimination of event sponsorship, transition of the 2020 Governor’s Tourism Conference to an online format, and a decrease in marketing and promotion.
“The (tourism office) did not proactively market to out-of-state visitors to come to Colorado or Summit County during the height of the pandemic,” Corbin wrote in an email. “We did encourage in-state residents to travel safely throughout the state during the pandemic, with an emphasis on visitation to urban areas that had experienced the largest decline in visitors.”
However, the Colorado Tourism Office did continue its journalist hosting program during summer 2020, footing the bill for visits by out-of-state journalists — including at least one trip to Breckenridge — to promote travel to Colorado in the journalists’ home publications, according to reporting by KUNC.
Corbin said the secondary focus, after in-state resident travel, became economic recovery as well as marketing destinations and industries hit hardest by the pandemic.
Similar to Breckenridge, the Colorado Tourism Office launched a campaign that included safety-related messaging to educate visitors about masking and social distancing.
Officials from Vail Resorts — which operates Keystone Resort and Breckenridge in Summit County, and is a key component driving tourism in mountain communities — said they also prioritized safety.
Vail Resorts spokesperson Sara Lococo said the resort’s top priority throughout the 2020-21 winter season was the safety of guests and staff.
“Our goal was to offer a successful season from start to finish and the much-needed opportunity for people to recreate outdoors during this unique time,” Lococo wrote in an email. “We focused on educating and informing our guests about new resort safety protocols, guidelines and local public health orders as part of our marketing efforts to drive visitation to our resorts and to ensure guests could visit safely and responsibly.”
In an effort to avoid crowding at resorts, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment required resort operators to work with their local public health departments on possible capacity limits. While Summit County did implement limits, health officials would not say what they were, and most Colorado counties left ski area capacity limits up to the resorts.
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