Vote for the Candidates Who ‘Get’ Tourism
by Seth Cagin
Oct 13, 2009 | 2639 views | 23 23 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print

For at least twenty years, Telluride has envisioned a necessary transition from an economy based on real estate sales and development to an economy based on tourism. It has never happened. Now that real estate is in a deep and prolonged slump, our failure to get serious about tourism has punched us in the nose.

It really hurts.

Why do I argue that tourism is the answer to Telluride’s economic riddle?

Let me answer that with another riddle: What else is there?

There are locals, some of them running for a seat on the Telluride Town Council, who don’t entirely agree that Telluride needs more tourism. They seem to think that we have enough tourism, or that tourism is the problem and not the solution, or that the slump is global and so our current economic misery couldn’t have been helped, or that we can improve what we’ve got by tinkering at the edges of the problem (“better marketing,” anyone?), or that we can somehow diversify into something else (if you just say “green” often enough…), although what that something else might be is never described.

I say it’s long past time to stop the denial and get real. It’s time to fully embrace tourism.

Of course, real estate sales and development will always be an important part of our economy. But real estate is not sustainable, by itself, as we now know beyond a shadow of a doubt. Moreover, the real estate business is highly dependent on visitation. Tourism not only brings in the customers for real estate, but tourist amenities – like good restaurants and shopping, a successful ski area and cultural events – help make the region attractive to second homeowners and full-time residents alike, thus underwriting property values.

Nobody whose income depends on tourism can doubt that the local tourist economy has been too seasonal and is thus too small. We do well for a total of about four months a year: a week at Christmas, President’s week in February, the month of March, Bluegrass week, the months of July and August, and that’s it. We have prospered over the last decade, despite having only four months a year of a viable tourism economy, only because real estate has been so robust. The late, lamented real estate boom covered our failings, allowing us to live comfortably in a state of denial.

The question is frequently asked: What can we do to add weeks or months of commerce at the level approaching what we get during those four good months? Another festival or two? More group sales? More marketing? Better access? Better hotels?

The answer is all of the above, but it is instructive to look at why we have four months of healthy business and not five or six, never mind the ten or eleven we could really use. The reason, simply, is that we get tourists precisely during the times when so-called Free Independent Travelers travel. FIT travelers, as the travel industry calls them, are people on vacation, or everyone who is not traveling on business or as part of a group. These vacationers travel in the summer, at Christmas, and, if they are skiers, in February and March. The fact that we have good visitation in those months proves that Telluride is, in fact, an attractive destination – as if anyone who lives here ever doubted it!

What do serious destination resorts do to extend their seasons? The answer, by and large, is group business. During peak seasons, when FIT business is good, year-round resorts feast on it. Then, at other times, they offer deals to groups: corporate groups, trade associations, business seminars, and the like, to keep people coming. The Telluride Ski and Golf Co. works hard to bring ski groups here before Christmas and in January, and they succeed with ski clubs. (With business groups, not so much.) Telluride has never succeeded in being a serious group destination year-round. And the reason is that we have not had the cornerstone amenity that groups require: a full-service hotel set up to accommodate them.

Does anyone remember how, before the Peaks fell into disarray, we did a whole lot better? The Peaks was once capable of bringing in groups and hopefully it will find ownership committed to restoring it. Now, and for the last year, we have the Capella, which is also group-friendly, with meeting rooms and banquet facilities, immediately adjacent to the Telluride Conference Center. The Peaks plus the Capella could add up to some real group business in Mountain Village, when the economy starts to recover. (Yes, group travel, too, has been hammered by the recession.) That would help us all.

Telluride, by contrast, is not in the game of competing for group business. We just don’t have the right accommodations for it. We are thus condemned to a four-month tourist season. If that’s all we’re going to have because we don’t have the political will or imagination to allow a sizable full-service hotel to be built in town, then we’d better be prepared to tighten our belts a lot more. Without more months of tourist traffic, main street businesses will be doomed to struggle. No longer supported by a bubble psychology, property values will have to continue to fall and so will our population.

(Or we could pray for a new real estate bubble, if anyone thinks that’s likely or desirable.)

This is our fundamental economic reality. We are either a tourist town or a ghost town. Nobody has ever proposed an alternative to tourism that can sustain us. Yes, we might become greener and grow more of our own food or generate more of our own energy, as many locals would like to see. But how will that bring a steady flow of money into our economy?

Do the candidates for the Telluride Town Council understand these economic realities? Ask them, before you vote, how they imagine Telluride’s economy of the future will function. Where will the money come from?

If they have no clue, and some of them really don’t, don’t vote for them.
Comments-icon Post a Comment
To Face
October 17, 2009
Why not focus on your town rather than trying to tell us how to run ours?

Thanks, but no thanks.
October 15, 2009
Here's a concrete suggestion: regardless of who wins the election, have the town switch over to "town meeting mode" for a series of work sessions (which would have authority) with respect to working out a budget & also to set a general framework for the future agenda for the representative mode counterpart to abide.

This Ophir style general assembly system of government could be held for a few meetings at the Pavillion, The Palm, or Library. I could be wrong about how it all works, but I believe all registered voters would be allowed to vote.

Setting the budget via a direct democratic method might serve to remove some of the politics & special interests (be them "outside agendas" which seek to use government to serve their end or beaurocratic agendas which seek to perpetuate their gig and size of the municipal machine) which can often cloud the process and waste time. Think about how much time & resources have been spent on a tax measure which could have effectively been killed before it gets out of the starting gate.

THCPA: There was nothing derogatory meant by that. I have felt lost at times; I am sure many going through this journey of life have as well.
October 15, 2009
In this discussion only the outsider from Washington seems to have some concrete suggestions. Our soon to be elected officials go on about "working with the business community to bring back business" without really offering any concrete specific actions they could champion to do that. Instead, they want to raise the property tax (and wish the Gallagher amendment would go away-it won't so stop wishing, Lulu) and raise the cost for our locals and visitors who shop and eat here (the .6 % sales tax increase to fund some worthy and some not so worthy non-profits and to clean up the messes left by our festivals).

It would seem that this would be a favorable time to look at municipal consolidation-either in part or wholesale. Can't the county sheriff take over jurisdiction for the town and mtn village and reduce the amount of waste and duplication? Can't the bldg dept.'s be combined for the same efficiencies? same for the roads dept. Really, do we need town governments when so many of the issues are regional in nature? And why do we have separate marketing and air organizations? Aren't they both trying to do the same thing-bring more tourists to our town? By remaining so parochial we run the risk of driving all of us off the bridge-stop funding the shoulder season gondola? That's one of the few things open now that tourists enjoy.
October 15, 2009
Old Timer for President..
Old Timer
October 15, 2009
Tourism seems obvious.

Only in Telluride could it be debated.

Land development is over, you condemned the last property that could have been developed.

Real Estate is near dead and it will be years before it returns to the good old days and even then the glory days of low hanging fruit with big profits is over. The first lots in the Mountain Village sold for $150,000 and they were the best lots.

Construction is slow and there is just not much demand to break ground on another big log and rock house when we have five to ten years of supply sitting on the shelf.

The plan was to have a vibrant, sustainable economy in Telluride when we ran out of the go-go real estate years.

An economy with real jobs so that people could live in Telluride and their children and their children's children could also live and would want to live in Telluride.

I have four children all born and raised in Telluride and now that they have all graduated from college and are free to make their own choices, not one of them lives in Telluride nor do they want to.

Bickering, back-biting, name-calling, meanness, narrow-mindedness, greed, selfishness, elitism, anti-growth, anti-job, anti-economy, insensitivity, stubborness, corruption, cronyism, illogical, irrational, mediocrity, ....

You squandered your chance.

Might as well try tourism.
October 15, 2009
Mr. Face- What a great close.."lost your way"

For the record-I am probably the most pro-business, right leaning, conservative guy on these boards..radical right would be a good description..

That declaration stipulated I have had my fill of using the government's tax authority for private business promotion (the care tax, etc), the local town manager is simply awful (hey we are broke, but lets borrow 5mm dollars that was approved in a prior economic era, so we dont have to go to the voters even though we will now have to pay carrying costs reducing the net availability of $ for aff housing-this guy would last 5 minutes with me) and the whole company town aspect (lets ban hot dogs in the core so my leased tenant can sell awful food for too much (and wait for it) because I am the landlord of the property) and finally Bear Creek development..

NFW..the place is too beautiful, it is remote yet near, TSG has failed to demonstrate an ability to manage the steep and deep it already has...

Is more always better? I dont think so especially when we are are losing our neighbors to job loss, our groceries are expensive and Bell wants to make them more expensive with his Care Tax (he doesnt really care about aff housing..since he wants to increase the cost to eat in ToT), and TSG is now or wants to be in the ....real estate development business (BC), restaurants, hotels (Peaks),lessor of real property...and now the new ski club for the kids...(dev club)...

Too much for me..all of it..
October 15, 2009
False, I love this mountain ... the terrain is unparalled. However, I very much dislike the target marketing of the uber wealthy and the whole more more more at any cost mentality with respect to operations.

Sure, I like to pay less and receive more, just like the next person. However, it's really not about me and my pocketbook, but rather the marketing plan and it's implications (complications) for the rest of the local community and the nation at large (who attempt to gain lift access to THEIR public lands).

Since we're on the topic of pass prices, FYI: I can now use my A-Basin only pass which I bought late last April for $340 (already have 4 days last May). It can be used the rest of this season there, one day of unguided access @ Silverton, and I believe 5 days at a smaller resort in the S. Lake Tahoe area. (No, I'm not moving ... so save your keystrokes, friend.)

Otherwise, I feel your post, "Face simmply", is a great example of projection. Look inside. You might find something you like & not feel a need to amass more more more to feel a sense of worth. I know for one, I will always extend a hand of friendship to those who may have "lost their way".

October 14, 2009
simmply hates change, and our local ski resort, it is obvious. What a putz.

He's proven over and over that all he cares about is a cheaper ski pass.

His life revolves around himself, and fabricates senarios to scare the public so he, himself, can get a less expensive season pass.

What a narrow, selfish point-of-view.
October 14, 2009
I'm not saying there wouldn't be economic benefits passed along to other sectors. However, I believe there would be a primary set of recipients who would stand to benefit. It would be a specific choice the government makes to dictate the future trajectory of the local economy and how well entrenched the existing players further become at the expense of what the TOT Master Plan calls for in terms of economic diversification.

It's not that it might not work, it's simply shouldn't be on any agenda for a municipal body to consider as an ideal with respect to the limits of government intervention in the free market.

It's not like there are any "too big to fail" companies here in town like there are on a national scale. Things would sort themselves out here pretty quick. The point being, any growth initiative spearheaded by the municipal government is NOT necessary, by definition. There DOES EXIST a viable tourism industry in town and in the region in the absense of a "lift 7 plan" ... which would be purely an elective intervention into the free market. This is the course the current council has sought to pursue and other candidates are apparently embracing.

All of this while the town is pecking away at $25k here and $50 there to get the budget balanced to keep the town running. In my estimation, it's simply not prudent leadership during times of duress.
Face is a Moron
October 14, 2009
His has demonstrated over and over in his online comments that he has no grasp on reality and not even a basic knowledge of economics.

He is a non-issue. My hunch is he doesn't even live in the Town of Telluride; and for that, I am glad, since he can't vote!
October 14, 2009
Face, what sector does not benifit from tourism? I do not think anyone is proposing the government build or subsidize a new hotel. I agree lift 7 was a flawed process but that does not mean we ignore our realities and opportunities.
October 14, 2009
It is one thing to "fully embrace tourism"; however, it is quite another for government to actively promote such a sector of the market.

Sometimes it's easy to lose perspective being so embedded in our small town that some lose sight of what is ACTUALLY being proposed here: a concerted effort to give a leg up to a particular sector of the market (at possibly the expense of other sectors) via an infusion of public funds.

On a pragmatic note: given that we're still in the midst of economic uncertainty, struggling to cut the fat from a quickly shrinking budget, we ought to shore up our existing resources to address critical core municipal needs ... rather than special interest marketing ambitions.

I'm still amazed that council is spending more time & possibly squandering more funds on lift 7 ... an ill-conceived project which has already been tagged as having signficant legal issues (to put it mildly) by the town attorney. This is akin to a city in California trying to push a brand new stadium (at the taxpayer's expense) in the midst of going bankrupt on all other fronts.

Well guess what, the ski mountain isn't going to pick up and leave and move to Moab if we don't shell out taxpayer $'s to build a new "stadium" with all the necessary "skyboxes" some are clamoring to be necessary for us to survive.

great article
October 14, 2009
Seth, very well said. We are at the tipping point but it is also hard to stabalize when everything for visitors is disappearing. Telluride is not funding the shoulder season to run the gondolla next year, the roads and main street are looking bleek. In mountain village they are trying to get rid of visitor information, events and giving the conference center away. We need our governments to not further hurt the only bussiness we have left.. Tourism Pray for snow :)
October 14, 2009
of course, skiing is tourism..

I tried to make the point, sorry for the failure to do so..

Bottom line is that we need to understand that Telluride will have less. Less of everything. Our business and economic model needs to work off that premise..cut taxes, costs, let real estate adjust to its real non inflated housing value, etc.

The past is past and I believe will not return...for it to return we would need debt financing on the same scale..and since the bright bankers bankrupted themselves and we bailed them out (bankrupting our future) there is no money to toss town that toilet...

So..cutting costs including wasteful town spending..lets start there..
bill schiffbauer
October 14, 2009
Seth, Marketing Telluride just recently purchased Scott's home for "employee housing" so they must have plenty of money for marketing. Apparently they can not find additional good marketing opportunities so got into the real estate business. Other point is with occupancy rates well below 50% who would build a hotel, and more, importantly what lending institution would finance it? Bill
tina from Washington
October 14, 2009
I am a tourist and here off season. It is the only time my husband and I could find time to take off. I am so disappointed to find this resort having so little to offer. Most of the restaurants are closed or offering smaller, limited menus. Most of the retail is closed, some posting signs that due to the economy they won't be back. The gondola, a great thing by the way, is closing by week's end. This should be a great place to visit off-season with less crowds, but I sense that my presence is more of a nuisance than a welcome.

When you read the local papers you get the sense of a community being split down ideal lines. While this is unfortunately prevalent in other areas of our country as well, it can be devastating to the future of communities as small as Mountain Village and Telluride.

I only have the view of an outsider looking in, but I suggest that the communities of Telluride and Mountain Village get together as one community. Pool your resources and develop a new tax base. Write down ALL the dreams for this place, categorize them by priority and set a plan to implement them based on immediate need and future preservation and of course, funding. If the current long term plans don't match the current reality, keep what you can and then start over.

Telluride and Mountain Village are beautiful places to visit. IF you want to preserve them for the future as viable places to live, work and play, then you need to put aside your various "ideals" and find a new way to come together as one. If you are content to continue holding onto your own dream and not finding a new shared vision, thereby keeping things as they are with a stagnating off-season and no real tax base to support basic services, the dreams of all will disappear into the howls of winds through empty buildings and broken dreams.

October 13, 2009
Folks that come to ski here ARE tourists.

As to your massive cuts to the sales tax; why not take a look at all the pieces that it is made up of... I am curious what exactly you would propose cutting. Our sales tax is in line with similar communities in CO. Our residents shop in Montrose and online not to avoid our local sales tax, but rather to benefit from a greater selection of product and lower prices. If they were avoiding just the sales tax, they would blow it simply on the gas purchased to get to and from Montrose or the shipping cost of the products.
ocean city md....
October 13, 2009
Have you ever been there? Tourist trap.

Here in Telluride, where thinking is affected by the high altitude, we focus on government taxes levied on everybody "for the common good" CCASE...or VF...

What part of macro economics did you sleep through? Lower costs ... instead of 10% tax, make it 6% (including state)...reduce lodging expenses including the Resort Fee (also known as the keep people in CB or Stmbot or Front Range)...that is right..just follow old Sam Walton..and provide more value...

The problem, as I see it, is we have such poor RETT or a bunch of liberal real middle ground in the bunch...

Go ahead, vote your slate in...alchemy didnt work in the 17th century and wont now either. You can not make a broad based economy on"tourism"..(by the way, what is skiing..dont people come to ski here?)...

Lower prices, compete...FGA! (THCPA)
if a hotel is a
October 13, 2009
panacea, then, by all means, build the damn thing. But Seth, when you notice how we all did better before the Peaks went into disarray, didn't those halcyon days coincide with the realty boom?

But since what you're really talking about is a "socialized" luxury hotel (remember the original and every subsequent owner lost buttloads of money on the Peaks), then I propose that the cheerleaders of the luxury hotel idea pay for it. Let's raise the rett and have a special paper-dependent-on-realty-ads tax to pay for the proposed welfare-for-the-rich socialized luxury hotel. By the way, if you favor socialized programs such as these to help realtors, by all means, vote Hintermeister, Hunt, and Masters.
John Pryor
October 13, 2009
This a great commentary Seth,

I think many people in our community believe that promoting tourism is selling out...or something. In fact it is just the opposite. We SO need tourists to come, play, learn, spend and leave happy. This is the grease that will keep our greater community together.

Please vote for Jill Masters, Ann Brady, Matt Hintemeister and Lulu Hunt.