Denver's skyline as seen from the Cherry Creek dam road on April 30, 2015. (Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post file)

Denver tourist spending sets record, but no credit given to allure of weed

The city's record 2014, which includes the highest-ever spending and visitor counts, has been attributed to tourism marketing — not marijuana.

It’s time to ditch that “Gateway to the Rockies” label. Denver is a bona fide destination, besting Colorado’s ski resorts as a top draw for vacationers.

A record 15.4 million overnight vacationers and business travelers visited Denver in 2014, spending a record $4.6 billion — two benchmarks among several in which the city logged gains at double or triple the national average.

Since Denver voters in 2005 approved an increase in the city’s lodging tax to bolster tourism promotion, the number of leisure travelers lured to Denver through marketing has grown 65 percent.

“I’ve got 30 clients, and no one has this kind of growth pattern over that period of time,” said Tom Curtis, who is with the visitor research firm Longwoods International. Longwoods sends out 2 million travel surveys every year to gauge the impact of its client states’ and cities’ tourism marketing.

Some highlights of the Longwoods report on Denver’s banner year:

• 15.4 million overnight visitors, up 10 percent from the previous record set in 2013, compared with the national increase of 3 percent in overnight travelers. Vacationers accounted for 13 million of those trips.

• Travelers visiting friends and family increased 13 percent in 2014, compared with 2 percent nationally.

• Denver ranks as the 15th top U.S. city destination, drawing a 1.1 percent share of the country’s overnight travel market, up from 0.8 percent in 2012 and 2013. Among the top destinations for ski trips, Denver ranks third behind Vail and Breckenridge but ahead of Steamboat Springs and Park City, Utah, with a 4.5 percent share of the traveling ski market.

• The number of business travelers, who spend $138 a day, coming to Denver reached 2.4 million in 2014, up 5 percent. Nationally, business travel was up 2 percent.

• Denver hosted a record 6 million “marketable” travelers — vacationers who could go anywhere but chose Denver — marking a 9 percent increase over 2013, compared with a 5 percent increase nationally.

• Those overnight visitors spent $6.4 billion in 2014, up 15 percent, with $3.6 billion spent by leisure travelers, a 12 percent annual increase. Business travelers spent $1 billion, a whopping 20 percent increase.

• The city’s lodging industry harvested $1.3 billion from overnight visitors in 2014; restaurants and bars saw $913 million in spending and retail shops saw $579 million.

Perhaps the most heralded statistic in the Longwoods report is the impression Denver made on visitors. About eight of every 10 people who visited Denver in 2014 said they would “really enjoy visiting again.”

“These numbers are outstanding,” Curtis said. “This is one of the top four, five responses I have ever seen.”

The city’s tourism boosters are quick to credit Visit Denver with the success. The visitor and convention bureau is funded in part by the city’s 2.75 percent lodging tax, which when added to membership fees from the bureau’s 1,200 partner businesses gave the bureau a $23.2 million budget in 2014.

Visit Denver CEO Richard Scharf said it was the city’s attractions and events that spurred the exceptional year. Visitation, he said, was bolstered by the good snow at ski areas in the high country, Dale Chihuly’s art at the Botanic Gardens, the Maya exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the Cartier show at the Denver Art Museum, the city’s best-ever hosting of 430,000 convention delegates, Broncos football games and the Lacrosse World Championships.

“Look at what we market. I really believe that we had visitor demand and great attractions that did some powerful things,” Scharf said.

And like most every tourism champion in the state, he declined to attribute any tourism success to marijuana, which became legal for recreational use on Jan. 1, 2014. (Scharf campaigned against the constitutional amendment that approved legal weed, arguing in 2012 that pot could damage Colorado’s brand and trigger fewer conventions and vacationers.)

Scharf said Denver enjoyed robust annual growth in visitation long before weed was legal, and the lack of research showing weed as a draw makes him reticent to credit it for any boosts in tourist traffic.

And, he said, there are no plans to either research the role of weed in tourism or to market it.

“It’s really illegal for us to market,” he said. “Since most of our market is out of state, the interstate laws prohibit us from marketing it. It’s not necessary for us to survey something we don’t market.”

Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, jblevins@denverpost.com or twitter.com/jasonblevins

Read the Longwoods Report by clicking here:

Top states apart from Colorado sending vacationers to Denver:

1. California

2. Texas

3. Illinois

4. Florida

5. Arizona

Top cities and regions from outside Colorado sending leisure visitors to Denver:

1. Los Angeles

2. Chicago

3. New York City

4. Albuquerque/Santa Fe

5. Dallas/Fort Worth

Top shopping and entertainment centers visited by out-of-state vacationers:

1. 16th Street Mall

2. Cherry Creek

3. Lower Downtown Denver

4. Denver Pavilions

5. Larimer Square

Top paid attractions visited by out-of-state visitors:

1. Denver Zoo

2. Denver Art Museum

3. Denver Botanic Gardens

4. Red Rocks Amphitheatre

5. Denver Museum of Nature & Science

This story was first published on DenverPost.com