Post-COVID Road Trip Research – Eyewitness Report
Brought to you by the Steamboat Pilot & Today and the Insights Collective
To fully understand a tourist, you must “be” a tourist, right?
Anticipate a return to near-normal volume in Steamboat Springs
Steamboat Springs should be especially busy this spring and summer as rising vaccination rates, easing health restrictions and pent-up travel demand feed local bookings.
“I think we’re in for a grand-slam summer,” said Robin Craigen, CEO of Moving Mountains, which provides “luxury and ultra luxury” lodging experiences in Steamboat Springs.
“We are very fortunate so many people are desperate to travel and come back and do the things that are available in our community,” Craigen said. “The fact we are able to do that in a safe manner and keep the confidence of our community and travelers is gratifying.”
Cooperation with COVID-19 rules made it possible
Craigen said the community deserves accolades for working together to navigate the pandemic. Local COVID-19 caseloads are falling and the county Board of Health recently lifted most pandemic-related restrictions. Europe, on the other hand, was forced to shutter its ski industry all winter and currently is experiencing sharp increases in positive coronavirus cases.
“Before the pandemic, we used to say what a great community Steamboat was,” Craigen said. “But how great our community is really revealed itself the last three months. … There’s so many ways this could have played out, but there are so many things to feel optimistic about. The future looks bright.”
Looking ahead, one major challenge Craigen and other business owners now face is a shortage of workers.
“There is a widespread belief we are going to be short-handed,” said Craigen, who also is the chair of the Steamboat Chamber Lodging Association. There’s also a belief there’s no quick fix to the worker shortage because of a lack of affordable housing.
“We need some big shifts in housing opportunities in order to populate the workforce,” Craigen said. “It’s not a surprise to hear people are being pushed away from the mountains because of the cost of living. That’s what’s happened in every other mountain resort community.”
With little historical data or hard research to guide us down the post-COVID road to recovery, I’ve selflessly volunteered to do some personal, experiential road travel research – a distinct departure from the Insight Collective’s disciplined, evidence-based approach – intended for those readers planning for mud season travel or preparing for summer tourism. Personal observations and anecdotes follow:
The Scenario: Our trip plan emulated nearly half of the U.S. adult population and many of the older “boomers” who are now inoculated and free to travel and congregate, subject to CDC and local guidelines. And with vaccinations now open to all adults and restrictions dropping rapidly, there was an underlying feeling of impunity and exuberance among road warriors most everywhere we went. It sorta feels like maybe we’ve forgotten but are now reawakening to what normal life feels like.
Transportation: A driving road trip to the warmer Southwest was a no-brainer, so we loaded the SUV with a luggage pod, bike rack and our research tools (golf, camping, hiking, pickleball, biking gear, etc.) and took off. Road travel was pretty straightforward but early season road construction has already begun. Lots of RV traffic seemed to constipate traffic – reminiscent of days gone by – and gas prices were on the rise. Perhaps we’ve gotten spoiled this past year?
Lodging: Catching up with friends and family is top of list for many but tricky when conflicting pandemic protocols or ideologies are in play; early, honest communication and empathy is recommended. Roadside motels were readily available, but campgrounds were limited and RV parks were already busy, requiring reservations well in advance. Some Walmart stores apparently once again offer their parking lots for overflow RV camping; imagine a tailgate party, sponsored by makers of Geritol and catered by Walmart, to get the idea.
Activities: Attractions and activities were based on COVID-appropriate outdoor options, to which we added dining al fresco at every opportunity and our perpetual ritual of taking on fewer calories than we burn off:
· Hiking: With more people outdoors, trails are busier, advanced reservations are increasing and masking protocol is anybody’s guess.
· Biking: All kinds – road, mountain, electric and motorcycle – were already on a roll but have exploded in this last year. New bikes are hard to get, bike lanes are busy and evidence of increased bike infrastructure is apparent in some places (and non-existent in others). That turned out to be a good indicator of communities that had anticipated and welcomed travelers like us.
· Golfing: Has enjoyed a resurgence, making tee times tough to get and requiring use of reservation systems, some of which felt archaic and often prioritize local residents. Not for everyone. It’ll be interesting to see how many newbies stick with golf as traditional options re-open.
Synopsis: Our experience was a good one. But understanding COVID protocols and local expectations was tricky; virtually every location and situation was unique, often not readily apparent and occasionally awkward. Best info was found on the front doors of retail and restaurants. We always started out masked, then adjusted as appropriate.
Worth it? Definitely! But not reminiscent of the relaxing, hassle-free vacations of old. Bring lowered expectations, patience and a good book. Anecdotally, we didn’t experience much local pushback, but did notice a few local folks checking out the dirty Jeep, decorated with outdoor gear and Colorado license plates, before a welcoming smile appeared.
Insights Collective; a Tourism Economy Think Tank and Resource Center – is a collaboration of destination travel industry experts who are collaborating and working, together with mountain resort communities and their stakeholders, to understand, plan, and navigate through the emerging tourism marketplace. http://www.TheInsightsCollective.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Resort Town Counterpart
So, having driven down the road (to recovery) as a visitor, I’m reverting to the resort town vocational perspective and concluding with a few personal observations as food for thought:
· Demand = Busy Summer Pent-up demand is clearly in effect, supported by other evidence, and should be anticipated, particularly for smaller, more remote leisure destinations that feature outdoor activities.
· Supply = Preparedness for Capacity Management If “forewarned is forearmed,” then you and your community should be anticipating and preparing to manage visitor capacity in a way that works for all concerned – not just visitors, but the conditions and expectations under which they are welcome by local residents. Under-capacity or anticipation can look just like over-tourism and can lead to misunderstandings about the true marketplace forces at play.
Rhetorical Question: Is Tourism Only About Tourists?
Consider tourism not as the only goal, but a viable means toward the broader goal of a viable, economically sustainable lifestyle for those who live, work and rely on resort towns for body and soul. Not a silver bullet or panacea for sure, but when managed properly and weighed against other options, tourism offers a manageable balance of benefits and detriments with the bonus of a not otherwise achievable lifestyle for residents.
There you have it.
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