Tourism study hints at why people visit Fort Collins
Whether visitors are picnicking at Horsetooth Reservoir, riding the river rapids, touring breweries or cycling city trails, Fort Collins has typically been a good summer destination.
Now, more than ever, people are coming to Fort Collins year-round to visit friends and family, take in a show at the Lincoln Center or grab a beer at one of the city’s many brewpubs, according to the first-ever, 12-month visitor study for Visit Fort Collins.
And once we get ’em here, they’re likely to come back. In three-quarters of the 1,254 surveys gathered between June 2016 and May, respondents said they would definitely visit Fort Collins again and would recommend it to others.
“We really like it here,” said Mark and Nancy Jones, visiting from the Palm Springs area of Southern California, where the temperature can soar to 110 degrees in the summer. The retired couple is scoping out Fort Collins, Boulder and Colorado Springs for a summer home.
“It’s a beautiful college town and more developed than we expected,” the couple said. “There are a lot of open spaces but a lot of things to do,” he said. “There’s everything we’re used to.”
While many of us complain about high housing costs, Mark Jones said real estate here “is extremely affordable, unlike Northern California.”
How many came?
The city tallied 1.73 million visitor days in 2016-17 — one person staying two nights is counted as two visitor days — and ranked high in friendliness, variety of available activities and customer service.
When visitors came, they opened their wallets. According to the study, the economic impact of tourism in Fort Collins last year was $274.6 million — which generated $7.7 million in sales tax revenue for the city — money that is used to pay for parks, police, city government and more, making it an economic driver for the city.
The study “reinforces something we feel like we already know,” said Josh Birks, the city’s economic health director. “Fort Collins always shows up on the national map … this reinforces we are a place people want to visit or move to.”
Fort Collins and tourism bureau Visit Fort Collins have worked to make the city more welcoming, including offering amenities such as trails, parks, breweries and museums, and created a backdrop that is attractive and accessible, Birks said.
Nearly 75 percent of visitors come from out of state, stay an average of four nights and spend about $829 while they’re here.
George and Cynthia Chapa took an hourlong walking tour around Old Town on a drizzly Wednesday to get a sense for the history and culture of the city.
The couple from Fort Worth, Texas, chose to visit Colorado to see the fall colors and experience the state. They spent Wednesday in Fort Collins.
On the walking tour, the Chapas learned about the city’s “idiosyncracies and uniqueness,” including its short-lived history as a fort, the railroad that goes through the center of town, Balloon Boy and Debbie Duz Donuts, a former topless doughnut shop.
Cynthia said they were impressed with the beauty of the city and the pride it takes in keeping it attractive. “I would recommend it to any of our friends,” George added.
What do visitors do here?
Since this is Fort Collins’ first 12-month visitor study, there is little data for comparison. Visit Fort Collins Executive Director Cynthia Eichler said she is basing increased year-round visitation on the rise in lodging tax revenue and profiles of what visitors do when they are here.
The top two most popular things to do in Fort Collins, according to the study: Visit downtown and dine out.
Restaurateurs are noticing the difference.
Jake Fitzsimmons, owner of Stuft A Burger Bar, 210 S. College Ave., has noticed the offseason has gotten busier.
“We are seeing less of a drop off from summer to fall than we used to,” said Fitzsimmons, who opened Stuft in 2010 after closing his previous restaurant, Eliot’s Mess.
Some of the increase is coming from neighboring Wyoming. “We are finding a lot of people, especially from Laramie and Cheyenne, are avoiding I-25 and using Fort Collins for day trips,” he said. “As a percentage, more people are daytripping.”
Those shoulder-season day trips generally depend on the weather, Fitzsimmons said. Visitation is up in an Indian summer or early spring and down during cold, rainy or snowy snaps.
The same is true at The Rio and Rare Italian, owner Pat McGaughran said.
“We do experience a higher level of tourists and travelers on more of a year-round basis,” McGaughran said. “In general it feels like Fort Collins has become more of a destination for tourists and sightseers. It certainly adds to the mix of people who come downtown for dining.”
McGaughran also has a restaurant in Frisco, which has a true understanding of the shoulder season, he said. “The ebbs and flows are sharper than in Fort Collins.”
CSU’s on-campus stadium will only help grow the visitor clientele, McGaughran said. There have been only two home games so far this season, but “we are seeing a significant impact with that,” he said. “More people are dining out before and after games … with the new hotel coming downtown, we anticipate that will also increase business travelers and tourist travelers as well.”
Another indication of year-round activity is in the arts.
“Visitors are going to musical performances, plays and museums,” Eichler said. Plays and musical performances occur mainly in what is considered offseason for tourists.
Ticket sales at the Lincoln Center, whose season runs from September to May, have grown between 1 and 2 percent year over year since 2014, General Manager Jack Rogers said.
And nearly 20 percent of its ticket sales come from outside Larimer County.
“In general, Fort Collins continues to have a great reputation and continues to grow,” Rogers said.
It’s something the community can continue to build on, he said. “We have to continue offering dynamic experiences to visitors to make them want to return and spread the word about our magical community here.”
The last study of tourism in Fort Collins used data that is now six years old. It showed that more than 1 million tourists added about $120 million to the local economy in 2011. Those numbers, however, were concentrated on summer visitation only.
Dave Belin, director of consulting services for RRC Associates of Boulder, the company that conducted the survey, said the extent to which visiting family and friends is important to Fort Collins and CSU was notable.
“A lot of people who moved here from other places in the last 10 to 20 years have friends and family who come visit,” Belin said. “We see that in a lot of communities, but it is often overlooked as an important driver within the mix of tourism.”
Colorado State University plays a big role in bringing people here, whether for academic conferences, sporting events or parents weekend, he said.
Belin said he was also surprised by the number of people who visited Fort Collins’ cherished reservoir. “Visitors love Horsetooth,” he said.
Visitor satisfaction was higher than other cities Belin has surveyed, including those with active beer cultures, he said.
Fort Collins really is a year-round destination, he said. “For me, it was an interesting project because I didn’t have a lot of experience with Fort Collins. But coming here now, it is a really vibrant, active fun community with lots to do.”
Where are visitors coming from?
- Colorado: 14 percent
- California: 12 percent
- Illinois: 8 percent
- Missouri: 5 percent
- Arizona: 5 percent
- Texas: 4 percent
- Minnesota: 4 percent
- Georgia: 3 percent
- Florida: 2 percent
- New York: 2 percent
Fort Collins tourism by the numbers, 2016:
- $274.6 million: Total economic impact
- 3,801: Number of jobs attributable to tourism
- $89.4 million: Household income attributable to tourism
- 7.7 million: Sales tax generated by tourism
- 4 days: Average length of stay for overnight visitors
- $829: Amount overnight visitors spend in Fort Collins
- $188: Average spending for day visitors
- 28 percent of overnight guests are in Fort Collins to visit family/friends (it was the top reason for visiting)
- 79 percent of overnight visitors visit downtown (the top activity for overnight visitors)
Source: Visit Fort Collins Visitor Study