Graduations helpful for hospitality industry

The Sundance Mountain Lodge in Monument is at its busiest this time of year.

Area college commencements can mean a sizeable economic injection to the hospitality industry.

Many businesses, from Monument to the south end of Colorado Springs, have seen a significant increase in customers the past couple weeks. Some of that is simply due to warming weather and the inevitable spike in tourists. But it’s difficult to deny the impact of celebratory graduates and their entourages.

Wednesday marked the end of the college graduation season for Colorado Springs, with the Air Force Academy being the final, local higher-education institution to conduct its commencement ceremonies for the class of 2014.

UCCS’s commencement took place May 23 and Colorado College said farewell May 19 to its departing class. Diplomas were given to approximately 1,000 cadets and 1,100 UCCS graduates, as well as 500 CC graduates. The majority of those 2,600 students have been congratulated in person by family and friends, and many have traveled to the city from somewhere else. As such, they have dined, slept and recreated in the community, injecting the region’s economy with healthy amounts of capital.

Jane Crabb, general manager of the Sundance Mountain Lodge in Monument, said the week preceding the Air Force Academy’s graduation and graduation week itself are the two busiest weeks of the year.

“I’m absolutely overwhelmed with business right now,” she said.

“The hotel is packed and we have event after event.”

Beginning last week through May 30, Crabb said, the lodge is running at full occupancy.

“We’re doing graduation parties. We have four banquets arranged for Air Force Academy celebrations and local high school graduations,” she said. “We’re not able to accommodate some guest requests for banquets because the space was booked long in advance.”

Crabb said Sundance Mountain Lodge, with its proximity to the academy, has many returning guests who have come to visit cadets in the past, including during events such as the annual parents weekend.

“We’re a family favorite,” she said of the lodge and its on-site restaurant. “We’re all-inclusive. You can take your shoes off, have dinner, do karaoke, get in the hot tub or heated pool. We’re a destination.”

She said there are “luxury hotels” close by, but her goal is providing a unique experience. “We appeal to a different kind of client,” she said.

Downtown just gearing up

“Colorado College [graduation] is definitely a big one for us,” said Suzi Nichols, assistant general manager of Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. “We immediately get hit right after.”

Nichols said CC’s graduation, which fell on a Monday this year, generated more than 40 percent higher revenue than a typical Monday and extra staff handled the expected rush. Graduation week is only the start of Phantom Canyon’s busy season, and Memorial Day weekend meant the unofficial start of summer and the best season for many downtown eateries.  

“This is one of the busiest times of the year,” Nichols said. “This is the beginning of our busy season. The weather is nicer and people want to sit on the patio.”

DoubleTree at capacity

Jarrod Long, senior sales manager with the DoubleTree by Hilton on Cheyenne Mountain Boulevard, said the hotel is also filled to capacity during the middle and end of May, and commencements are the reason. “We always have, for college graduations, an influx of guests for both Colorado College and the Air Force Academy,” he said.

When guests call to reserve rooms, they are asked if they are in town for a particular event. Long said he hasn’t seen nearly as many guests for UCCS’s graduation ceremonies, perhaps indicating more local and commuter students attending UCCS.  

Long said graduation business has increased 20 percent over the past five years.

“We’ve sold out [the weeks of May 12-May 23] and a large chunk of [this] week,” he said, adding that because of the increase in business, the DoubleTree is considering putting together packages specifically for commencement weeks in the future.

A smaller piece of the pie

Not everyone reaps the rewards of the tens of thousands of celebrants descending on the Pikes Peak region.

Jeremy Krause, general manager of the Denny’s on North Academy Boulevard, said he and his staff can hardly tell the difference. He said he has been with the restaurant for five years, and even though it’s a stone’s throw from the Air Force Academy, he never has experienced a huge bump in business.

“We might bring in one extra server while families are in town,” Krause said. “We’re just not fancy dining.”

Local impact

Of the higher-ed, four-year schools in Colorado Springs, only the Air Force Academy has compiled numbers for the economic impact of commencement and parents weekend, while Colorado College has studied the combined impact of visitors for both graduation and family weekends. 

Statistics from the Air Force Academy’s office of public affairs were for 2012’s graduation week and parents weekend. The document stated that estimates were based on the following assumptions:

• Estimated length of stay based on 2012 graduation week and 2012 parents weekend.

• Expenditures per person per day based on 2012 Department of Defense maximum per diem rate for Colorado Springs.

• Sales tax estimates do not include the 2 percent hotel and the 1 percent rental car tax.

According to the study, approximately 35,000 people attended that year’s commencement, and the average length of stay was five days. Those visitors spent on average $150 per day. The total expenditures for graduation week, based on those assumptions, were $26.3 million.

That would have generated $656,250 in city sales tax, $262,500 in Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority sales taxes and $761,250 in state sales tax. 

The AFA parents weekend around Labor Day has about 10,000 visitors staying an average of six days and spending $150 each day, which would generate $9 million and $666,000 in sales tax revenue, according to the document. Both events, including sales tax revenue, would have generated nearly $38 million.

According to Kevin Rask, professor of economics at Colorado College, the school estimates about 2,500 visitors for the 2011 commencement spent approximately $3 million in and around the city. Nearly $6 million was spent between commencement and family weekend that year. 

Rask said that doesn’t account for money spent by the college to prepare for the ceremonies, including tent and chair rentals, renovations and other contracted work.

“There are different ripples depending on where that money is spent,” he said.