DENVER — Coloradans can look no further than Denver’s Union Station to see travel and tourism are making a comeback.
“We just got here about a half hour ago,” Erin Richtsmeier said. “Came from Wisconsin — we’re just in town visiting friends.”
It's not hard to find travelers from across the country in the Mile High City — one couple from Atlanta, another from Racine, Wisconsin and yet another from Wichita, Kansas.
“We’re not going to live scared,” said Erin’s husband, Kevin Richtsmeier. “Everyone’s over it.”
There is unquestionably pent-up demand and people are hungry to get out and go.
“The vaccine is the keystone for all economic recovery in the travel sector,” said Skyler McKinley, regional spokesperson for AAA.
New numbers from AAA suggest only 32% of Coloradans feel comfortable getting on an airplane at the moment, but 84% say they'd take a road trip right now.
“It’s going to start with shorter trips to places where people feel safe,” McKinley said.
McKinley said once the vaccine becomes more widely distributed, travel and tourism is certainly coming back.
“We’ve learned a lot,” McKinley said. “That’s why more people are comfortable traveling, but we’re not out of the woods yet. And health experts are telling us that in pretty clear terms. It’s this balance we have to strike between supporting our neighbors and staying safe. To get the benefits of everything we’ve suffered through – this is do or die time. So, let’s do and not die.”
That expression is perhaps nowhere more appropriate than it is at Sage Hospitality, which owns hotels and restaurants in 20 states, including Colorado.
“Most of our businesses closed for some period of time,” said Walter Isenberg, Sage Hospitality co-founder.
Isenberg said Sage went from 6,200 employees pre-pandemic, down to just 500 — laying off 90% of its staff nationwide.
“Just horrible,” Isenberg said.
But he’s happy to report things are on the rebound. His company is now back up to 2,000 employees and climbing.
“We’re very, very optimistic,” he said.
Isenberg said there is, without question, a growing desire to return to travel.
“By way of example, our hotels downtown were all full for Valentine’s Day,” Isenberg said. “It just tells you people want to get out.”
Isenberg says two things will lead to more tourism this summer and fall. The first is seniors getting vaccinated.
“They are the demographic that travels for leisure a lot and has the disposable income,” Isenberg said.
The return of the arts, conventions, concerts and sports will help, too.
“The Rockies, you know, they’re going to have 25% capacity,” Isenberg said. “That’s going to change things a lot in downtown.”
One thing that won’t change — at least not this year — will be safety measures while traveling.
“It might mean wearing a mask,” McKinley said. “It certainly will mean proving that you’ve been vaccinated. It’s going to mean jumping through hoops to get on an airplane.”
While those might be short-term, Isenberg said COVID-19 sped up some technology that is now here to stay.
“We’re always so slow to adopt new technology, just in general,” Isenberg said. “Not anymore. Things like keyless entry, touchless check-in — as you think about checking into a hotel, you can do it on your iPhone. You don’t ever need to go to the front desk. You get an RFID code, which is your key to get you into the room.”
Isenberg thinks it's a friendlier, less transactional process.
“I think that’s going to be positive for the guest and the hotel,” Isenberg said.
Those guests see Colorado and the great American west as a great location to "test the waters."
“We’re here to get some relaxation, some rest and then take some sights in,” one visitor from Atlanta said. “We’ve always heard it’s a great place to explore and get outdoors.”
Colorado’s neighbor to the north, Wyoming, just announced Monday it will be lifting all facial mask mandates and allowing restaurants to open at full capacity.
“I think the masks are getting really annoying,” another visitor from Wichita, Kansas said.
While visitors may not be coming back in droves, they are returning little by little.
“We’re ready to enjoy the Colorado sunshine and the company,” Richtsmeier said. “Flights are very inexpensive, and we have friends all over the country. I think everybody’s ready to get back to normal."
“I would say, get ready for really insane pent-up demand,” McKinley said. “In 2022, everybody’s going to be traveling. Americans truly see travel as a right, not a privilege, and they’ve missed it a lot.”