Outdoor Firms Navigate Rocky Roads

Though fires and an ongoing drought in the Rocky Mountain states made for compelling TV news reports this summer, Brian Mullis remained unfazed, and even optimistic, as the recent events unfolded.

By: David Peterkofsky

Though fires and an ongoing drought in the Rocky Mountain states made for compelling TV news reports this summer, Brian Mullis remained unfazed, and even optimistic, as the recent events unfolded.

Mullis, director of Boulder, Colo.-based adventure tour company The World Outdoors, received some inquiries from concerned clients with all the news coverage but no cancellations.

“We did receive a few phone calls,” Mullis said of his clientele. “The only time we heard from our clients who had registered for trips based in Colorado or New Mexico was after the media really started portraying the severity of the fires. Fortunately, we were able to diffuse any concerns.”

Mullis and other outdoor-travel suppliers in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region might feel the same way the British felt a year ago, dealing with a natural disaster and weathering the ensuing media coverage. In Britain, it was foot-and-mouth disease. Here, it’s wildfires and a drought.

And just as the fires and drought haven’t affected everyone in Colorado, neither has their fallout brought all of Colorado’s $7 billion tourism industry to its knees.

“We have received anecdotal information, which varies depending on who you speak with,” said Stefanie Dalgar, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Tourism Office. “One business says they are significantly down, while another says they are holding their own.”

The World Outdoors’ Mullis, for example, appears relatively lucky. His firm’s Rockies business, consisting of multiday hiking, biking and rafting tours, is above normal this year, and none of the company’s itineraries were in affected areas. Joe Greiner, whose rafting company Wilderness Aware offers day and overnight rafting trips throughout Colorado, tells a different story.

Greiner’s business is down 37% this year, due primarily to low water levels on the Arkansas River, his most popular destination. The reports of wildfires haven’t helped either.

“The call volume is so far down,” said Greiner, who is based in Buena Vista, Colo. “The ones who are coming have an idea that there’s still some water in the rivers and it’s fine it’s just a different experience. They’re prepared for that. Others just say, ‘We’ll come to Colorado next year.’ ” Other destinations in the region report better business. At Summit County’s Keystone Resort, a popular summer meeting spot with its own convention center, no groups, conferences or conventions have canceled this summer, spokeswoman Dawn Doty said. And at Winter Park Resort, 67 miles west of Denver, room nights are up 8% compared with last season.

Holding Steady

Beyond Colorado, some tourism officials in other areas say their business has held steady or even increased, possibly due to Colorado’s difficulties.

In Utah, tourism is “relatively unchanged,” said Mark Bennett, spokesman for the Utah Travel Council. Fires earlier this summer didn’t affect access to Utah’s five state parks, although one fire temporarily closed Cedar Breaks National Monument.

In Lander, Wyo., lodging occupancy is up 41% compared with last year, said Kathy L. Gundersen of the Lander Chamber of Commerce. Though she’s not sure how much of the increase can be attributed to the wildfire situation, many travelers have called in advance to ask about fire conditions in Lander after they canceled Colorado reservations.

But it’s the drought that has made it a difficult summer for Rema Vescosi, of Wildwoods Travel in Salida, Colo., on the Arkansas River. A specialist in rafting trips, Vescosi said her business has suffered due to the low water levels, so she’s now focusing on ski trips for the coming winter.

Though business has been down, Vescosi noted a recent uptick in calls from travelers wanting to make last-minute preparations to visit Colorado in spite of the well-publicized fires.

Vescosi even recently received an e-mail from a man who wanted a straight answer as to whether or not he should visit Colorado with his daughter, who has asthma. Vescosi responded by saying she still smelled smoke outside, and she suggested they visit another destination.

“He never got back with me,” she said of the potential client. “I could have made money with him, but I tried to be as honest as I could.”