By Dave Belin, RRC Associates
Brought to you by the Summit Daily and The Insights Collective
Successful towns and cities all over the world strive to improve the quality of life for residents, which in turn often makes these locations attractive for visitors and second-home owners. One of the keys to that success is collaborative partnerships between different entities, both public and private, toward a common goal.
The maturation of tourism economies in many towns in the West has represented an evolution from a one-trick pony (ski resort only) to a vibrant, complete destination with activities, attractions and facilities for a wide variety of visitors and residents. The diversity of restaurants, cultural offerings, retail shopping and outdoor activities represents a potent draw for tourism.
While many COVID-related challenges exist, creative new partnerships between visitors’ bureaus, local governments, private foundations, citizens and other entities have quickly emerged to offer new and different activities to visitors, to communicate effectively to keep visitors safe, and to develop innovative new programs that support local businesses. These dynamics are an extension of the trend of mountain communities becoming complete destinations, appealing to many different types of visitors for different reasons.
New amenities for visitors and locals
Getting outside has never been more popular. This summer, national park visits set records, bike and sporting goods retailers reported empty shelves and racks, and even Hershey’s chocolate sales were up from more people making s’mores outside. The surge in the number of visitors seeking outdoor experiences is normally a welcome trend in mountain communities, but this winter obviously presents new and unique health and safety challenges.
Steamboat Springs is addressing the anticipated demand for outdoor recreation head-on by creating two outdoor ice-skating rinks that will be free for all skaters. The temporary rinks are being built on top of existing tennis courts, which already have lights for after-dark tennis play. Usage of the rinks will be free for residents and visitors alike, and the new, innovative facility is funded primarily by private individuals and business sponsors.
“In a time where indoor capabilities are limited and public opportunities are scarce, we’re able to create unique recreation opportunities for the community,” the City of Steamboat Springs Parks & Recreation Director Angela Cosby said in a recent press release.
The new skating rinks in Steamboat are one of many non-downhill activities available in the community, which contributes to a well-rounded winter economy and makes Steamboat Springs an even more attractive place to visit. The broader offering of different activities not only makes resort towns more appealing to a wider range of visitors, but also enhances the quality of life for existing residents.
“Beyond skiing, you can ride fat bikes on groomed trails, go horseback riding, ice fishing, dog sledding and even learn to drive in icy conditions. As always, relaxing in hot springs is a unique winter experience,” commented Laura Soard, Marketing Director of the Steamboat Springs Chamber.
Support for Local Restaurants
When it comes to what SKI Magazine calls “Down Day Activities,” dining and retail shopping are two important elements in the mix. Many restaurants that were able to offer outdoor seating this summer will transition to a greater share of take-out and delivery meals this winter. Indeed, it is likely that winter visitors will want to “dine out,” but do so more safely at their condo or hotel suite.
With the shift to delivery, restaurants are absorbing the fees that third-party delivery apps charge to deliver the meals to customers. One way to address this increased cost is a new restaurant grant program from the City of Boulder. The city is using a portion of the federal CARES funding to pay the restaurant portion of third-party delivery fees, which will allow restaurants to retain more of the profit on the sale of delivery meals.
“Communities lose vibrancy, character and precious tax revenues when restaurants close down. Everyone loses,” said Sean Maher, CEO of RRC Associates. “This program will help struggling small businesses survive during the winter season, when outdoor dining is limited, and customers are nervous about eating inside.”
Non-Downhill Outdoor Activities
When ski resorts shut down in mid-March, backcountry skiing and touring quickly became a popular alternative activity. That popularity is expected to continue this winter, given the sales figures for backcountry gear of all kinds.
“We’ve seen some big orders this fall from retailers, especially for our lower price-point products,” noted Bruce Edgerly, vice-president and co-founder of Backcountry Access. “Other retailers have moved up their pre-season order ship dates. Given this high demand for snow safety equipment, it’s likely we’ll see some new participants and greater overall usage in the backcountry this season.”
Other on-snow activities are likely to be popular as well, especially among non-skiers. If the surge in interest for hiking and biking this summer is any indication, then tubing, Nordic skiing, ice skating, fat biking and snowshoeing will likely be in high demand.
“At both ski areas and elsewhere, we anticipate an enormous interest in getting outside this winter. The dual challenge of pent-up ‘cabin fever’ during COVID and an ongoing recession, will make lower-cost options like sledding and snowtubing an incredibly popular and affordable option,” said Dave Byrd, Director of Risk and Regulatory Affairs at National Ski Areas Association.
Communication and safety
For all of these activities, it will be important to communicate not only their availability, but also the rules and limitations on certain trails to keep all users safe, particularly newcomers to winter outdoor recreational activities. Communication about current health orders, trail closures or modifications to trail usage will all be essential topics to push out to the public this winter.
Resort apps and social media are great ways to push messages to visitors in town. Additionally, emails and websites are proven communication technologies that resort visitors are accustomed to using to get information
“Articles in local media and local radio/TV are key outlets for communicating with visitors and locals alike,”Byrd said. “For example, in terms of guests looking to go sledding on their own, enhanced signage, clear rules of when/where sledding or tubing is allowed, and security policing areas like golf courses, parks and easy-access hillsides will be important to keeping our visitors safe.”
Preparing for Resilience
Fostering the diversity of the resort economy, working to support local businesses, keeping visitors informed and safe, and evolving into a complete destination are long-term evolutionary trends in mountain communities. In the current COVID environment, communities that work together, think creatively, and react quickly will have greater resilience and a better chance for continued success.
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