Let’s just say it out loud: Summer 2020 was tough. The COVID-19 pandemic affected this community in ways big and small, some foreseen and others unexpected. 

As always, my colleagues at the Telluride Tourism Board and I want to move forward, using experience gained and data collated to inform future decision-making. 

With that in mind, let’s talk first about the elephant in the room: How busy was our summer?

The short answer is busy in some ways, less busy in other ways, dreadful in still others. 

Let’s take a closer look. 

First, it’s worth mentioning that the tourism board worked for the past three years on creating a more complete, real-time measurement of occupancy, which meant, serendipitously, that when we started to welcome guests back to the destination on June 1, the tourism board was able to provide San Miguel County with an accurate, up-to-date measure of occupancy of paid accommodations. 

As a result, the county had data that enabled it to issue the public health orders that limited occupancy of paid accommodations; first, on June 1 to 25 percent, and later, on June 18, to 50 percent. A positive collaboration.

So, what did the data tell us about visitors who stayed in short-term units? 

Paid occupancy rates for short-term lodging averaged 34.8 percent from June through September 2020, compared to 38.7 percent for the same period last year.

In addition, June, July and August saw the owners of less than 50 percent of countywide self-managed properties submit taxes.

But we all know that town felt so much busier than these data indicate. Why? Partly because “paid occupancy” consists of short-term rentals (29 days or less), meaning that there were long-term vacation rentals (30 days or more) not included in these numbers. 

In addition, part-time residents were here in droves: Owner-stays for managed properties for June through September were 18 percent this year, compared to 12.8 percent in 2019.

Another metric we at the Telluride Tourism Board look at is the wastewater treatment plant data, which broadly estimates population at particular points in time in Aldasoro, Lawson Hill, Mountain Village and Telluride. According to those numbers, population in the area was down this summer by about 8 to 11 percent compared to the average over the last four years. 

The dip in occupancy of paid accommodations plus the decrease in population numbers tell us that this was a tough summer for our lodging community, the largest industry segment of local employees, one that includes housekeepers, maintenance personnel, property managers, marketers, reservationists, bookkeepers and more. 

(Despite these challenges, the local lodging community was at the forefront in devising and implementing a cutting edge coronavirus-appropriate cleaning regime — and were rewarded in August when Airbnb ranked Telluride as the destination with the cleanest properties nationwide. That’s incredible.)

And then there is sales tax, which, given that visitors account for 85 percent of local sales tax revenue, is a good indicator of the health of our visitor economy. This summer’s sales tax receipts look to finish close to summer 2019, although there were those who had a successful summer and those who did not. 

The pandemic economy certainly produced very disparate operational and financial challenges, with festivals, bars and weddings, for example, suffering disproportionately. 

Even for those businesses that found their “protocol feet,” it still translated into a challenging summer, especially for the community’s frontline workers: retailers and their staff, salon and spa workers, baristas, bartenders, and kitchen and wait staff.

Despite the data showing evidence of a less busy summer, we clearly saw our outdoor spaces overrun by long lines of cars, overflowing trash cans, crowded trails, lakesides and campsites, dog doo, unpleasant behavior, and more.

As the effects of the global pandemic were beginning to bite, the Telluride Tourism Board made the decision to suspend all summer marketing, so where did all these people come from and how did they find us?

Again, data can give us some clues.

With international travel stopped in its tracks, an urban exodus, wildfires and hurricanes, and the inconsistent public health orders across the country, the outdoors and recreation became the consumer’s primary choice.

Analyses of internet searches in the spring and early summer show an exponential increase in interest in camping and campgrounds; RV rentals; water sports typical of lakes, like kayaking and canoeing; and national and state parks. 

That created day visitors the likes of which we have never encountered, and for which we were not accustomed. 

It wasn’t only the Telluride area. Rural communities across the country, but especially in the Mountain West, had similar experiences. 

So, where do we go from here?

We already have evidence that a collaborative approach can benefit our community. 

Since March, the tourism board has deliberately turned its attention toward the community, forging collaborations, not just with the county on occupancy data, but also with the Telluride Mountain Club for clean-up days; with the newly formed Telluride/Mountain Village Restaurant Association; and with the Town of Telluride Ecology Commission, the Town of Mountain Village Green Team and EcoAction Partners for Live Like a Local, a campaign designed to ensure that visitors know and appreciate local green ordinances and customs. 

I look forward to seeing where the next collaborations take us as we tackle together the issues kicked up by the strange summer of 2020.