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Seasonal changes bring challenges for Colorado tourism amid pandemic

Covid Chronicles: Tourism
Covid Chronicles: Tourism 09:28

CBS News is chronicling what has changed for the lives of residents across the nation in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In any season, Colorado offers some of the world's best outdoor adventures for tourists — in 2018 travelers spent $22.3 billion in Colorado, an all-time spending record for the Centennial State. 

Tourism is a huge industry in Colorado. According to Colorado's Tourism Office, the state is home to only 1.7% of the U.S. population, but accounts for 7.7% of the country's tourism jobs. 

Many of those jobs are impermanent, as seasonal workers support the state's economy taking different jobs as the seasons change. Some who spend late spring and summer as climbing, fishing and rafting instructors pick up winter gigs as lift operators, ski instructors, and ski patrol. 

Seasonal work is a lifestyle and has its nomadic elements. Many live on campgrounds, communally through their employer, or in their vehicles to keep the cost of living low and their mobility high. 

But what happens when you add the limitations of COVID-19 to Colorado's tourism industry?

Some have found the flexibility of the seasonal lifestyle is compatible with the pandemic.

"I pay no rent so that's pretty appealing, especially during a recession or pandemic," said Steven Moss, 23, who lives in the summer in his outfitted truck. 

Moss is a mountain guide at Kent Mountain Adventure Center (KMAC) in Estes Park and works as ski patrol for Crested Butte in the winter. Not only is Moss' lifestyle adaptable, but he works every day measuring risk, a skillset he says has helped him during the pandemic. 

Steven Moss is a mountain guide at Kent Mountain Adventure Center Photo provided by Steven Moss

"We talk about risk and risk management a lot. And I think that the whole world is kind of being forced to look at risk in a different way now with COVID," Moss told CBS News.

He says COVID-19 has accentuated the stressful aspects of seasonal work.

"I have friends that are older and have a wife and a kid, and both them do seasonal work and are totally out of jobs and have a mortgage and a family to support. That is definitely terrifying to me [...] Seasonal work is something that I've enjoyed doing because it has a lot of flexibility and it's a lot of fun, especially when I'm young, but it's definitely made me think about stability in my life and finances quite a bit," he said. 

Moss' employer, too, has had to face new bottom-line realities related to the virus. KMAC was only able to reopen in late June after the state had earlier required it to close to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Dustin Dyer, co-owner of KMAC, told CBS News that the profitable summer season is ordinarily from May to September. 

"It's been a roller coaster," Dyer said. "I feel like we've been just in endless planning mode. It's like, this is the ground rules. Okay, let's do this, this, this and this to get ready. And before we even get to operate, it's a new set."

KMAC makes 85% of its income in the warmer months, and with such a shortened season, Dyer contemplated whether it was worth reopening at all this year.

"I have about ten employees who work for me for six months a year and it was mostly for them. I could survive. I can go do something, be somebody else, for a year. But I didn't want to let them down. So that's the main reason we turned it all back on." 

As the state begins to return to work, travelers are eager to travel to Colorado this summer. Vendors told CBS News they're busier than they expected to be. Most say people want to get out of their homes and enjoy some fresh, socially distant air. 

Steve Beckley, the owner Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, says the park makes 75% of its earnings and all of its profits between May and September. After opening last month, attendance is half of what a normal summer would bring, though Beckley says numbers are starting to tick up. 

Glenwood Canyons Adventure Park S.B. Finalists
Glenwood Springs, Colorado, USA - March 27, 2015: Steve Beckley, Owner, Glenwood Canyons Adventure Park.  Photo by Ian Wagreich / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Beckley, who built the park in 1999, said nothing — from wildfires to the Great Recession — has compared to the stress of managing COVID-19. 

Keeping abreast of new hygiene regulations and new customers has been a challenge, but employers are also finding they're understaffed. 

Jim Ingram, the owner of Aspen Whitewater Rafting, said he usually employs 32 people but is only operating with 17, since seasonal workers he hired earlier are making more from unemployment benefits.

"I've talked to so many seasonal employers and they're like, 'You know, we can't get these people back to work because they don't want to work.' So, that is crushing us right now," Ingram told CBS News. 

He's referring to a provision of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which offers all unemployed workers an additional $600 per week on top of state unemployment aid. The $600 was designed to replace the missing income a worker loses while unemployed. Some workers have found that they would make less if they were actually working. Ingram may have better luck hiring when the program runs out at end of July, unless Congress extends it.

Even more daunting for business owners is what future seasons hold. "The thing that's keeping me up at night right now is this coming winter. Right now we're making money and enough so that it's slowly digging us out of the hole we got in to. In another month we might be out of that hole. But if this thing hits again hard this fall, this winter, it'll get really dark here," Dyer said.

Steve Beckley, who said the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) supplemented two of his three months of profit loss, has similar concerns. He told CBS News, "We have another big spike and we shut down again? How much money can the government print?"

While Dyer and Beckley rely on summer crowds, others peak in the winter. Caleb Sample, the director of talent acquisition at Aspen Skiing Company, is responsible for 4,500 jobs across Aspen resorts and ski complexes. 

By now, Sample would ordinarily be about a month into screening applicants for the winter. Thanks to COVID-19, he has yet to begin. 

"I'm already nervous. I'm not panicking," Sample said.

But no one knows what business is going to look like this winter. "The toughest thing about this upcoming season is maybe we'll see 20% less business? Maybe we say 50% less business? Maybe we'll see zero percent business because the government shuts us down, which is what happened this last March. We don't know," Sample said.  

Another looming question — will  international visitors be allowed to enter the U.S. again? Colorado Tourism Office data shows overseas travelers bring more value into the state than domestic travelers, spending an average $2,438 per person per trip in 2018 versus $775 per person for visitors from Mexico and Canada. 

International employees are also part of Colorado's seasonal workforce. Recruiters like Sample are now relying more on domestic applicants.

"We were expecting some kind of change with the [Trump] administration. Maybe changing the visa laws," Sample said. "Though, we weren't obviously expecting a pandemic. That would be ridiculous." 

Leaning on domestic recruitment, Sample is anticipating an influx of applicants this year, perhaps twice as many as last year. In part, it's because so many are unemployed because of the pandemic, but also Aspen's surroundings are attracting potential candidates.

"I think people are looking for some kind of mental release," he said. "They move to the mountains and kind of clear their headspace."

He remains "cautiously optimistic" since most businesses were able to open back up last month but said that if the governor shuts businesses down again, it would be the "worst case scenario."

"I think we're kind of emerging out of that doom and gloom. But there's so much uncertainty," Sample said. "If there's anything that we know, [it's that] nobody knows what's going on."

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