With post-pandemic tourism rebound spotty, state offers aid to event organizers
More than 300 people gathered outside Naturita in southwestern Colorado last summer at the Planet V festival for a weekend of music, dancing, art and community.
“It actually began as an event during COVID … it was called Burning Van,” Natalie Binder, who runs Camp V on the site of the abandoned mining town, said.
“When Burning Man was canceled, friends approached us and said ‘Why don’t we just do a mini get-together so we can still see each other?’” she recalled.
Last year’s event was more organized – and a lot bigger – than the semi-spontaneous iteration that popped up during the early days of the pandemic. And this year, Binder is hoping to attract even more, about 500 people.
A rebate from the state helped make all this possible. Binder was able to recoup about $5,000 of the total $55,000 cost to run the festival last year and hopes to tap into funding again this year. The aid is particularly beneficial for events happening at more remote locales like Naturita, she said.
“There's a lot of challenges to holding an event in a rural community, especially one that's really unknown," Binder said.
While pandemic aid is mostly a thing of the past, tourism is one industry in Colorado that’s still getting a boost. To lure event planners to spend their money here, Colorado is offering a cash rebate that covers up to 10% of eligible hard costs for events that attract large groups. As of Nov. 30, 2022, more than $4 million in rebates had been approved.
“We've expended about half of the funds allocated to the cash rebate at this point,” Elizabeth O’Rear, the director of grants and funding for Colorado’s economic development office, said. “We're 18 months through the program, and we have another 18 months left.”
That means eligible events have until the middle of next year to get some of the money, which can pay for things like food, event space, A/V equipment and entertainment. The money was carved out of the state’s general fund. Whatever isn’t used, presumably, will go back into it, unless state legislators decide to do something else with the money, O’Rear said.
The program includes money for conferences, business meetings and trade shows, as well as festivals, concerts and sporting events. Even weddings are eligible. “(It’s) events that demonstrate an economic impact,” she said. “You have to have a certain amount of minimum eligible hard costs. You have to have a certain number of eligible (hotel) room nights.”
Officials launched the state program after Colorado’s travel industry took a hit during COVID-19 shut downs. Things have since picked back up, especially in the state’s resort areas, which have been bursting at the seams with visitors.
But the recovery has been uneven. In particular, group travel is taking longer to come back. That’s because those types of events have to be planned – and paid for – well in advance and are at risk of being canceled if COVID cases start to climb. On top of that, a lot of group travel revolves around business travel, which has been much slower to bounce back.
Judging by the volume of recent applications, people are feeling more confident about booking events, even though the pandemic is still here. That could be a sign that businesses and event planners are learning to live with uncertainty. Just this month, a rebate was approved for the Curling National Championships, which will take place next month in Denver.
The influx of applications could mean that businesses won’t need inducements for much longer. But, Binder from Planet V stresses every little bit helps.
“When you can bring even just 300-500 people into an area that only has a population of 500 … it's a huge economic impact to a small community,” she said.
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