Colorado Meeting Trends and State of the Industry
By Beth Buehler
Making sure planners and suppliers are working in tandem to make top-notch, in-person gatherings a reality was at the heart of the Colorado meeting trends and state of the Colorado meetings industry discussion at Destination Colorado Meetings’ Feb. 23 membership meeting. Members gathered at Denver Marriott Westminster to network over lunch, learn from a panel of three Colorado professionals moderated by Barb Taylor Carpender, and ask thoughtful questions.
Here is a glimpse at insights shared by Jason Lusk, associate vice president of convention sales for VISIT DENVER; Chris Romer, president & CEO of Vail Valley Partnership; and Jeanette Stensgaard, senior director of education and events for the Kidney Cancer Association.
The Big Picture – Mountains & Capital City
Romer shared information about bills such as the SHRED Act on the national level and Senate Bill 001 regarding workforce housing on public lands and House Bill 23-1118 addressing fair workweek employment standards on the state level. He also mentioned the need to address legal immigration, and I-70 Coalition funding to help with traffic “pinch points” like Floyd Hill and Vail Pass and look at possible solutions for Glenwood Canyon, all affecting Colorado meeting trends.
Demand for group bookings in the mountains started up again in 2021 and escalated fiercely in 2022, with much of it related to outdoor recreation, he says. “In the 20 years I’ve been doing group business, we’ve never seen a pipeline as strong as we do right now in the mountain region, Vail and Beaver Creek specifically.” Romer observes, “People are paying record rates for the peak times, and properties are still being really aggressive during the shoulder periods to bring in the right business at the right time.”
However, the biggest challenge remains finding employees. “We are working with our property partners to put on a good face amongst significant workforce challenges across all industries,” he says. “How do we communicate and provide the right service that we want and that our guests expect and demand?”
The Denver metropolitan region continues to benefit from Denver International Airport (DEN) continuing its ranking as the third busiest airport in the world, Lusk says. “It is quite a feather in our hat. It speaks to accessibility not only in Denver but the entire state.”
DEN has added 39 new gates, regained every single airline route and more, and reimagined the whole terminal. Beyond the airport, the National Western Complex’s multiphase redevelopment is beginning to make its mark with Colorado State University opening its three facilities (including an event space), and the refresh of downtown Denver’s 16th Street Mall is well underway and will be done by end of 2024.
There are 8,000 new hotel rooms in development around the city, with the central business district and east side making up 70% of that number. Lusk notes that Meow Wolf is still making a splash, the Denver Art Museum’s new facilities has garnered visitor interest, and the expansion of the Colorado Convention Center should be completed this October.
He describes “historic levels of demand coming out of gate in 2023 and a lead volume that is unprecedented” and appreciates having a sales team that is fully staffed again. “There is demand for getting back to business and a lack of availability. It’s a good sign—people really want to meet,” Lusk says.
Denver’s lodging tax revenue for 2022 came in higher than 2019 benchmark levels. While occupancy is up, so is average daily rate (ADR). Currently, ADR is outpacing occupancy, he says.
Despite many good things happening, staffing is still an issue in cities as well, Lusk confirms. “One planner said, ‘The COVID check is cashed. We want the service levels we had pre-pandemic.’” Lusk sees it as a rally cry to get things figured out and prove “why we as a region and a state do meetings right.”
To review the Colorado meeting trends and state of the Colorado meetings industry, Stensgaard sent out a survey to a group of planner colleagues and shared their collective input. Most of all, meeting planners miss building relationship with suppliers and having partnerships that are beneficial to everyone involved.
Response times from suppliers have slowed, and staffing is getting back to more normal levels. However, there are not as many decision makers, Stensgaard observes. On the flip side, companies cut budgets along the way and had a lot of executive assistants doing meeting planning, whereas many corporate planners previously were certified and brought years of experience to the table. Some of these planners have not returned to the industry, and there are a lot of younger, not-as-experienced meeting planners coming into the field who are learning the ropes.
In terms of today’s budgets, companies are indeed seeking “pre-pandemic service with a smaller budget during a time of inflation,” she says. “How do we get there? It takes give and take on both sides. As a planner, I’d love to see three-quarters of the association’s entire budget go toward meetings because that is where we are building those relationships, giving that education, and building the advocacy of organizations.”
Additional Colorado meeting trends include lack of venue date availability, high food costs, registration for gatherings not fully returning yet, and the continuation of interest in hybrid meetings, especially for learning components.
“We are finding people still want that hybrid capacity because they are picking and choosing what conferences they are traveling to and not going to as many,” Stensgaard explains.
For health care meetings, there are “a lot of last-minute registrations and high-maintenance sponsorships,” Stensgaard says. “We have to prove value of conferences in ways we haven’t had to do prior,” she says, noting this has translated into coming up with more benefits for sponsors and adding bleisure opportunities for attendees.
She describes the last three years as “accelerated evolution,” meaning that many things that have occurred were probably going to happen at some point. The pandemic sped everything up. “Looking in the rearview mirror isn’t going to help us,” she says.
Fewer Off-Season Opportunities
The seasonality of group bookings has changed in both mountains and cities due to demand, affecting Colorado meeting trends as well.
“In the mountain region, if you go back 20 years, May, October and early November were pretty sleepy; you could get incredible value in rate, activities, the whole thing. … Not so much anymore,” Romer says. “It is pretty steady. those times are still off-peak relative to peak winter and summer months but are running higher occupancies than they ever have both midweek for group and weekend for leisure.”
Cities like Denver also are seeing fewer off-season timeframes. “Now we arm wrestle over January dates … and next year we have a citywide in December,” says Lusk. As a result, groups are willing to be flexible with dates more than ever before.
Strategy & Bookings
Dealing with all the changes and competition for dates has required planners to be more strategic, notes Stensgaard, who has developed a 10-year meeting strategy that addresses hotel brands, meeting dates, location rotation and more for her association.
However, she notes that longer-term bookings are coming back slowly and contracts are being held up in legal departments longer on both sides of the table, due to clauses that address “what ifs” and involve a fair amount of negotiation.
Vail Valley Partnership is still seeing closer-in business bookings because of continued uncertainty and Colorado, Texas and New York still leading the pack as feeder markets. Being a popular destination for associations continues to work in the region’s favor due to the fact that most attendees pay their own way and are attracted to the Vail Valley as a leisure destination.
Denver’s feeder markets also have remained steady with Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and Midwest states bringing the most groups to the city. “In the past six months, we have added a new corporate citywide position because our corporate business is on the increase. It used to be 75% association, five to seven years ago. Now its 61% association and over 25% corporate,” Lusk says.
However, group travel is behind leisure travel in catching up to 2019 levels in urban areas, while group demand in mountains is higher in every single month versus pre-pandemic numbers. This is closely tied to outdoor recreation, Romer explains.
Cities on the other hand are working hard to fill convention centers beyond 2026, which is requiring sales teams to be creative with policy adjustments and incentives, Lusk notes. Yet, putting deals on the books is coming with a level of uncertainty when relying on data about how groups performed pre-COVID. And, while planners are ready to be back meeting, attendees remain more hesitant, he says.
Stensgaard believes it isn’t so much about attendees not being ready but budget issues, additional responsibilities at home and more local opportunities. “Attendance is lagging. We are trying to be creative and find ways to get them excited to attend,” says Stensgaard, who is integrating local experiences and considering ways to encourage people to bring their families to conferences.
Relationships Are Key
The discussion returned to the importance of relationships between destinations, planners, suppliers and attendees. This can mean many things but often dials back to being responsive to information requests and treating it like dating someone, Romer says.
“If business is transactional, this business is lost … and we are a commodity and no different than any other state. It’s how you can stand out—it’s intentional and takes time,” he emphasizes.
There is a tension happening with planners and suppliers both being extremely busy, Stensgaard says. She recommends taking the time to get on a call and meet in person. “It’s all about rebuilding relationships, remembering we are in hospitality, and getting back to working together toward a wonderful meeting.”
Part of working together is marketing the meeting and the destination to attendees, as that is where the goals of both sides intersect, Lusk suggests. Mutual respect and compassion also are key relationship ingredients.
Top Photo: Colorado offers the best of cities and mountains, courtesy VISIT DENVER
Colorado native Beth Buehler has been editor of Colorado Meetings + Events magazine for 18 years, helped launch Mountain Meetings magazine, and is on the team introducing Southwest Meetings + Events this spring. She has planned numerous meetings and events and enjoys exploring Colorado.