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From marketing to management

How Southwest Colorado tourist destinations are moving away from recruitment
Tourists fill the sidewalks of downtown Durango on Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, as they walk past the Visit Durango location on Main Avenue. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

When a tourist comes to Southwest Colorado, drawn by the rustic railroad and verdant alpine tundra, they might unwittingly find themselves the subject of a robust marketing machine.

For years, organizations including Visit Durango and Visit Silverton worked to recruit tourists – and the contents of their wallets – to the region.

“We used to spend a lot of our human capital and staff time (asking), ‘Who do we target? Where do we take out ads?’” said DeAnne Gallegos, the executive director of the Silverton Chamber of Commerce.

When Gallegos started her job nine years ago, her sole focus was recruitment.

But about four years ago, that began to change.

Silverton and Durango were inundated with tourists, many drawn by the natural beauty of the San Juan Mountains. And the mountains began to succumb to the tragedy of the commons.

Rosie Williams and her daughter Ayaluna Stouts, 5, from Santa Fe stop in at Visit Durango on Friday, Nov. 24, 2023. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The San Juan Mountains Association hosted an event last year in which volunteers removed over 70 fire rings in dispersed camping areas along a 4.4-mile stretch of South Mineral Creek Road (Forest Road 585) – all of which were placing the nearby water sources in jeopardy. A year later, the fire rings are back.

This past summer, an SJMA forest ambassador working near Blue Lakes, north of Telluride, picked up 7 pounds of toilet paper alone on her first hitch.

“Do you know how much 7 pounds of toilet paper is?” SJMA Executive Director Stephanie Weber said, incredulously.

Since 2019, “strategy” has become the operative word.

Gallegos now says that Silverton is no longer recruiting tourists.

In the vein, Visit Durango made a shift in 2019: it changed from being a destination marketing organization to a destination management and marketing organization.

“For us, it's not just a pivot, it's an entire 180,” said Rachel Brown, executive director of Visit Durango.

The transitions on the part of Silverton and Durango’s tourism organizations are part of a statewide shift that consistent of what Andrew Grossmann, the Colorado Tourism Office’s director of Destination Development and Research, calls a “broadening of the way that we approach tourism.”

The Animas Forks Trailhead in July was one of several destinations in the San Juan Mountains that was overrun with visitors. (Courtesy of the San Juan Mountain Association)
The push outside

The impacts of COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 are evident: A surge of people flooded the outdoors and city-dwellers flocked to mountain towns.

Silverton is the only population base in San Juan County, of which over 200,000 acres, or 87%, is public land. In 2019, the town began seeing an increase in tourism.

“2020 was definitely the next level,” Gallegos said.

By 2021, the town’s sales tax revenue was up 50% from the year before. Findings from the state’s tourism office using cellphone data revealed that visitation in San Juan County increased 167% in the eight months following March 2020 when compared to the eight months prior.

With a summer population of just 1,400, Gallegos said the town struggled to serve the ballooning number of visitors. Parking was squeezed, she said.

In Durango, Brown said the influx in visitors brought the need for management – rather than marketing – into high relief.

“We had a lot of people visiting at that time, so we knew that this kind of needed to be managed,” Brown said. “And we also saw the importance of things like health and safety – (they are) crucial.”

Ice Lakes, a pristine emerald jewel of the San Juans sitting less than 4 miles from the trail head, was the prime example. In response to the COVID-related surge in visitation, SJMA hired ambassadors to staff the trailhead. But a permit system could still come in the next few years, Weber said.

Ice Lakes has become overcrowded and parking is insufficient, forcing the San Juan Mountain Association to pour resources into educating visitors. The San Juan National Forest is still considering a permit system for the trail. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The destination sometimes saw up to 800 people per day at the height of the pandemic. In the spring of 2021, SJMA launched its ambassador program, which included stationing staff at the base of the Ice Lakes trailhead.

COVID-19, according to Brown, was an opportunity to reset. It gave destination marketing and management organizations a moment to recalibrate organizational priorities and start to incorporate more management into the marketing.

Flattening the tourism curve

For Grossman, strategy is the operative word. Marketing never stops, everyone agrees, but how and when to do so strategically is the name of the game now.

“How do you manage and how do you support just basic infrastructure with these ebbs and flows of tourists?” Gallegos asked. “It's not 12 months out of the year.”

Brown says Durango’s marketing is much more surgical.

“(We) target specific people that we think will have a positive impact on the community,” she said.

The organization seeks out visitors who give indications that they will continually recreate, bring diversity into the town and bolster the overall quality of life for residents and visitors alike. It also maintains a “do not promote” list, which includes overused destinations such as Ice Lakes, Highland Mary Lakes and Rico Hot Springs.

Rachel Brown, Executive Director of Visit Durango. (Durango Herald file)

Brown said when Visit Durango does promote visiting the town, “we market strictly for the off-peak season.”

John Harper, general manager of American Heritage Railways, which owns the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, said the train has tried to attract more offseason coverage by acting like an airline and dropping prices when demand falls.

This push toward attracting offseason visitors is the new normal because it can mitigate the negative impact tourists may have while also spreading out positive economic boom that typically hits only in the summer.

Although visitors may see more Leave No Trace-related content, thanks to a partnership at the state level, Brown said the shift is often not visible to the public eye.

“The majority of the ways that a visitor would be impacted by this they will never even know,” she said.

Silverton’s sales tax data shows that spending, including in the offseason, is up.

The town recorded a 134% increase in June revenue this year. September, October and November’s revenues were also up 18%, 24% and 30% (which, due to the way taxes are collected, correspond to visitation in July, August and September), respectively.

Although the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is not running full trips to Silverton, tourists are still finding their way into town, lured by the vast outdoors and public lands. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Still, tourists continued to flock to the fragile high country in record numbers over the summer.

“I think there are a lot of hard discussions that are on the horizon for all of us who love doing what we do in these in these mountains,” Weber said.


A previous version of this story incorrectly described Silverton’s sales tax revenue trends. The story has been updated to reflect that tax revenue is collected two months after the money is spent and to clarify analysis of the trends.

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