A fly fisher finds solitude in Rocky Mountain National Park. Courtesy Matt Inden/Colorado Tourism Office

Pandemic makes 2020 the year of the road trip

With parking lots at popular trailheads full at the crack of dawn, state park campsites booked through October and more in-state folks than ever packing inns and vacation homes, the pandemic-plagued summer of 2020 is proving to be a tourist season like no other in Colorado.

“When it comes to travel, two things are true: Folks want to get out and stretch their legs after months of ‘stay-at-home’ orders, but they’re more cautious about travel than they’ve ever been,” said Skyler McKinley, director of public affairs for AAA Colorado. “For now, they’re setting aside extended vacations in favor of long weekend getaways — and they’re packing up the car to get there.”

“People, after having been stuck in their homes for a few months, do want to get out of their houses; that’s really, really clear,” Brian Chesky, chief executive at vacation-home booking company Airbnb Inc., told the Los Angeles Times. “But they don’t necessarily want to get on an airplane and are not yet comfortable leaving their countries.”

With air travel predicted to decline by about 74% over 2019 and rail, cruise ship and bus travel expected to fall by 86%, officials at the auto club predict, Americans are viewing the automobile as their safest travel option — and more of them are making travel plans just days in advance instead of months.

“The booking window is a lot shorter. People are waiting to the last minute to book,” confirmed Greg Rosener, whose SkyRun Estes Park manages around 100 vacation-home properties.

According to the Daily Trends Tracker from visitation-intelligence company Arrivalist, the July Fourth holiday saw a near-complete return to pre-pandemic levels of road travel across the nation.

Hotels took a beating as many travel plans were canceled. Speaking by video chat, Ryan Schaefer, chief executive of Fort Collins-based NAI Affinity, told BizWest’s Northern Colorado Real Estate Summit in June that although the state as a whole is seeing better occupancy rates than the rest of the United States, Northern Colorado’s hospitality sector is seeing “staggeringly low” activity, with overnight accommodations in Fort Collins and Boulder posting around 14% and 12.5% occupancy rates, respectively.

Airbnb statistics show that people are booking longer stays closer to home — but away from the big cities. That trend can’t help but help mountain towns such as Estes Park, an easy jaunt uphill from the Front Range urban corridor and a cooler respite from the long, hot summer below.

“We are at an occupancy that is just about what it was at the end of last year,” Rosener said. “We are going to surpass 2019 numbers — even after 70 days shut down.”

Estes Park, at the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, ordered its overnight accommodations closed in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they were open again by Memorial Day weekend — and restaurants also resumed dine-in service, albeit at socially distanced half capacity.

Rosener said 85% of his units are filled with travelers from easy road-trip distance, with Coloradans making up 40% of visitors and Texans at 20%.

Rentals of vacation condos usually rank third or fourth in Estes Park compared with hotels and inns, noted Eric Lund, chief executive of Visit Estes Park, “but now it’s flipped and they’re first or second.  People want to have some space.”

Lund said he spoke to John Cullen, who runs the iconic Stanley Hotel, and was told that “his condos are booked solid. He’ll be at 90%” for the last weekend in July.

“We’re marketing specifically to drive our overnight market. We’re trying to focus on that area,” Lund said. “We don’t mind the day traffic that’s going to come up, but we’re trying to focus on overnight as much as possible.”

Business is picking up for Estes Park’s tourist-targeted shops as well. Charley Dickey, who owns Rustic Mountain Charm, said his business in May racked up 50% of the sales he posted in the same month of 2019, but that had risen to 75% in June and 90% in July.

The town’s major tourist draw is the national park, which drew 4.6 million visitors in 2019 but is operating this year at 60% capacity through a daily reservation-entry system.

“That takes a big chunk out of that 4.6 million,” Dickey said, “but that 60% makes our 90% look pretty good.”

One drawback to the park’s new timed-reservation system is that entry is free after 5 p.m., “so we don’t have as much business between 5 and 9,” Dickey said. “That’s hurting the restaurants at dinnertime as well.”

Entry to the national park is free in the wee hours as well, and that has meant the parking lot at Bear Lake, the park’s most popular trailhead, is full by 6 a.m.

Another effect is that there’s more demand for campsites in the surrounding national forest and Larimer County parks — especially since fewer travelers are flying in and more are arriving in their recreational vehicles. Starting Jan. 1, all campgrounds, cabins, yurts and other facilities in Colorado state parks became available by reservation only. Parks near the urban corridor report that they’re booked solid through autumn.

Shop owners and economic-development officials in Estes Park agreed that a crucial way to keep the town’s economic recovery on track is to respect the precautions needed to curb the virus — including social distancing and wearing masks — and avoid another statewide business shutdown.

“A lot of our shop owners say they’re busy enough, and that’s easier to manage with mask requirements,” said Donna Carlson, president of Estes Park’s newly revived chamber of commerce. “We have very few who are independent thinkers and choose where they want to go based on whether people are pliable with their mask requirements or not. Masks are what we do to stay open, and we’re happy to comply.

“Hey, what you personally believe is secondary to the fact that we need to curb the infection rate to stay open. If there’s an implication that not wearing a mask is contributing to our businesses closing down, I’m going to wear a mask and not question it. Our businesses are saying let’s rally together on this and wear it whether you think it works or not.”

“We couldn’t afford to have them shut us down in July and August,” Dickey added.

Visit Estes Park had to cut its staff by 30% and reduce expenses elsewhere as well at the height of the coronavirus crisis, Lund said, “so we’ll not be able to do as much marketing if we don’t have the same revenue. We’ve had a half-million-dollar shortfall, but we do have a very healthy six-month reserve.

“We hope our town returns to some form of normal early next year,” he said, “especially if they come up with a vaccine.”