Brainstorming in Steamboat
Employers planning a corporate retreat face the dual challenge of deciding on a site that advances company goals but that still feels like a reward.
Many discover that harmonious middle ground in Steamboat Springs, a community of nearly 17,000 located 160 miles northwest of Denver and named for its hot springs, which remain a relaxing draw for those looking to unwind and find a little inspiration.
But decades before it became known as Ski Town USA, Steamboat Springs was understood to be a summer retreat for well-to-do families and individuals. All these years later, the town at nearly 6,700 feet in elevation in the Yampa Valley has retained its authentic Western charm and ability to attract the vacation crowd year-round while building a reputation as a stellar spot for business getaways.
It’s a place where one is likely to see a man in a cowboy hat, an artist rendering the scenery and, depending on the time of year, those awkward, weight-forward in their ski boots strollers on a simple trip to the local coffee shop.
Steamboat competes for all its visitors with other mountain towns and ski resorts, but it holds several advantages over much of the I-70 commotion-filled competition. Though it requires a longer drive, the town has nearby Yampa Valley Regional Airport with flights from at least eight major cities every day at the height of the ski season, including a direct daily flight from LAX in Los Angeles. In the summer flights primarily come from Denver two or three times a day.
“For those traveling by car, Steamboat has the advantage of feeling peaceful and remote while still an easy 2 1/2-hour drive from Denver,” said Nikki Inglis, public relations manager for Steamboat Springs Chamber of Commerce, who may have a lead foot. “Visitors love that Steamboat is away from major interstates and isolated from the hustle and bustle of the cities. We’re just far enough away to feel like a true escape but still close enough for a casual weekend trip or weekday conference,” Inglis said.
While the ski industry is king here, just as it is in similar resort getaways throughout the state, (the town has enjoyed 69 Winter Olympic athletes since 1932, the most of any U.S. town) Steamboat does not go dark in the offseason the way other mountain communities can. Steamboat retains most of its population in the summer months while hosting numerous events such as the Hot Air Balloon Rodeo and the Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo Series.
The most recent travel statistics available come from a 2010 summer visitor research study conducted by the Steamboat Chamber of Commerce. It showed 43 percent of visitors were from Colorado. Texas carried 8 percent, California had 5 percent and Arizona, Kansas and Missouri each made up 3 percent of the total travelers.
Steamboat attracts visitors from around the world year-round – but particularly and unsurprisingly so – during the ski season. In the spring, summer and early fall the resort focuses its efforts to attract visitors from the Front Range. The Chamber of Commerce does not have an in-house group sales professional. Instead, it partners with local businesses. However, there have been discussions recently about adding that missing sales component to best represent the community as a whole.
So far this year it has hosted conferences such as the Colorado Society of Association Executives and the Rocky Mountain Coal Association.
“We work in collaboration with local lodging properties that have conference spaces to secure large-scale events like the 2012 Governor’s Tourism Conference, for which we partnered with The Steamboat Grand and the Sheraton Steamboat Resort,” Inglis said. “We are looking at the options and opportunities to have an overall group sales effort on behalf of the community to market to the larger events that may need to use function space at multiple properties.”
Additionally, there are smaller niche operations in town and nearby that could benefit from such a strategy, even though many are doing well on their own.
The Home Ranch is one property with a 50-guest capacity that has grown in popularity in recent years with both vacationers and business people wanting to get away from the boardroom for a chance to unwind.
The Home Ranch – which doesn’t have a single television on the property – offers the opportunity for professionals in a group or traveling individually to climb up on a horse, take the reins and work cattle in a collaborative fashion. This activity often provides valuable insight into how one manages employees and co-workers, particularly in new or stressful situations.
“It’s the sense that a lot of horsemanship work ties into management and business work,” said Laura Fisher, the marketing coordinator at Home Ranch. “In understanding and communicating with a horse, (the experience) can translate into communicating with people for a better business outlook. It’s really sort of a different experience and a different world all together.”
Like Steamboat, the Home Ranch pulls much of its business from the Front Range outside of ski season and targets Denver aggressively with its marketing efforts. It hosts most of its business getaways in the spring or fall and welcomes more families and typical vacationers in the summer and winter.
“Instead of a meeting, it’s really an experience,” Fisher said.
Kristal Eckley, director of sales and marketing at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort, said the property hosts four or five large conferences each month during the ski season and slightly fewer in the summer. The property features 228 guest rooms, condominiums and villas with 56 additional units in the works. While it may lack some of the specialty offerings smaller operations in town are known for, the Sheraton provides large corporations the opportunity to experience Steamboat with all the modern conveniences.
Eckley said summer is the most competitive time of year for Steamboat and other similar mountain escape destinations to bring people to town. The Sheraton recently hired a sales manager based in Denver to focus on charming visitors from the Front Range. Some of the best skiing in the world takes much of the work out of the process in the winter months.
“We definitely look nationwide,” Eckley said. “We’re challenged in the summer because of limits on air travel. That’s why drive markets become so much more of a focus for us in Colorado in the important summer-fall period – Denver especially. There are so many companies based in Denver that have the opportunity to bring their meetings to the mountains.”