Unconventional mountain resort for conventions

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Question: What travels with 8,000 bunny rabbits, spends lots of money, and makes the Convention and Visitors Bureau here very, very happy?

Answer: The American Rabbit Breeders' Association, which recently staged a seven-day convention in the Springs, with attendance of some 3,000.

Local officials are trying to push the convention side, particularly, of the tourism and convention industry. Conventioneers spend more - roughly twice as much - than the family vacationers who have been a mainstay of Colorado Springs tourism for decades.

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Conventioneers are also less tied to the school year than family travelers, and that's important to an area that's trying to stretch its season past the traditional June-to-August. Ironically, Colorado Springs finds itself at loggerheads with skiing areas over the image of the state they are trying to push. Colorado Springs has quite mild winters, with Christmas-season golf often possible, but the ski industry would like to present the state as snow-blanketed six months of the year.

''Agricultural associations are natural for us,'' said bureau director Deane C. Drury, ''since they can meet in the winter, which is our off-season.'' His bureau is also pushing to get the area's electronics firms to consider having their meetings in Colorado Springs instead of California's Silicon Valley or elsewhere. ''We're also big on military reunions - World War II types,'' he adds.

What's holding the convention business back, he says, is lack of an adequate convention center. Proposals for a center have been voted down three times on grounds of expense. In fact, Mr. Drury argues, a convention hall could be financed with the local bed and car taxes.

Colorado Springs does about $76.7 million a year in convention business, with about 175,000 attendees. The tourism business is worth about $240 million a year and involves some 2.7 million tourists. The ''hospitality industry'' (restaurants, hotels, motels, and tourist attractions) accounts for some 10,000 primary jobs.

Tourism is down some 4 to 7 percent this year, according to Mr. Drury. He ascribes the falloff to the wet weather, the general recession, and the counterattraction of the World's Fair in Knoxville, Tenn., which is eating into the Springs' share of the bus-tour market, in particular.

The good news, though, is that even with fewer people revenues are projected to be up some 11 percent, which means real growth, beyond that caused by inflation.

Tourism has long since yielded first place in the local economy to the military sector, and even has slipped behind electronics. Arguably, though, neither of the new industries would have come here if vacation travel hadn't enabled people to get to know the area first.

Colorado Springs was founded as a health resort, catering to the affluent from Chicago and from the East. There was also an English contingent large enough for the town to become known as ''Little London,'' a nickname that lingers to this day in the names of some of the local establishments.

Those were the days when people arrived by train with their steamer trunks for three or four months at a time. They stayed at the Antlers downtown, or, after 1918, at the Broadmoor. This resort hotel was built on the southern edge of town with the Cripple Creek gold earnings of Spencer Penrose and C. L. Tutt Jr. It incorporated Italianate architecture in pinkish stucco and an artificial lake built by a Prussian nobleman who came prospecting in the New World to gain the wherewithal to maintain his ancestral home.

But somewhere along the line Colorado Springs tourism went populist. One of the main roads to the Broadmoor is lined with family motels, and a whole class of tourist attractions has grown up to cater to the recreational needs of young families, who can spend only so much time oohing and aahing at Pikes Peak. The attractions have grown up with the city; a notable example is the Air Force Academy Chapel, reckoned to be the most popular man-made attraction in the state.

The Broadmoor retains the elegance of the '20s, but the guests often move at a faster pace. A uniformed doorman serenely exchanges insights on the weather with guests wearing jogging shorts and Nike shoes.

There may be other changes ahead for the Broadmoor too. The hotel is owned by the El Pomar Investment Company, which is in turn wholly owned by the El Pomar Foundation, established with the fortune of hotel founder Spencer Penrose, who left no heirs. A 1969 federal law passed to prevent the establishment of foundations to circumvent estate taxes is requiring the El Pomar Foundation to divest itself of 50 percent of its stock in the investment company by 1989 and another 15 percent by 2004.

Broadmoor officials, concerned that the hotel could be taken over by interests outside Colorado Springs, are trying to get the law amended. They argue that loss of the hotel would limit the foundation's ability to support local good works and point out that since no Penrose heirs are involved in the foundation, theirs isn't really the kind of situation the law addresses. Investment company president William J. Hybl intends to ''fight the good fight'' and is confident that something will be worked out in Congress before the 1989 deadline.

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