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If Colorado’s tech and outdoor rec sectors weren’t inextricably linked prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they certainly are now, panelists on a recent webcast said.
“The marriage of tourism, travel, and tech is important to what’s happening in Colorado’s economic development,” state Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, said earlier this month during the “Tech Forward Webcast: How Tech is Driving Recovery in Colorado’s Tourism Economy”.
In 2019, before the pandemic, an estimated 87 million visitors came to Colorado, spending more than $24 billion. Colorado’s tech industry, meanwhile, is worth an estimated $50 billion and makes up 14.5% of the state’s economy.
Business and political leaders on the webcast said the two sectors drive each other, with so many people attracted to Colorado for its outdoor recreation lifestyle, especially during the pandemic, and digital and tech tools now seen as vital to the thousands of small businesses that cater to the state’s tourism and outdoor recreation economy.
McCluskie cited a recent example of an app developed to cope with exploding traffic congestion along the Interstate 70 corridor connecting Denver and the Front Range to the mountainous Western Slope.
“I-70 traffic congestion has been a huge challenge for us … we have really struggled to find new and creative ways to get those cars off the road,” McCluskie said. “And I’m excited to say that this year, thanks to a couple of very creative millennials … we carried a bill to help promote carpooling apps – a way for people down here in Denver to connect with each other and carpool when they want to come up for a ski visit.”
But McCluskie also cited on-the-fly tech-tool innovations during the pandemic that have facilitated everything from the ordering of curbside pickup at your favorite restaurant to remote learning, virtual health care, travel booking and purchasing from brick-and-mortar retail.
“I am absolutely delighted with some of the impressive technological advancements and changes that our small businesses have used in order to combat pandemic-related challenges,” McCluskie said. “Because of these harsh and challenging times, we have seen innovation bubble up and improve systems in ways we might never have realized before.”
That innovation has sparked resiliency and adaptability within the small business community, she added: “The technology sector has also made considerable investments in our state, becoming leading employers and attracting top talent.”
Rob Retzlaff, chief of staff of the Connected Commerce Council (3C) – a tech nonprofit with thousands of small-business members – served as the webcast’s moderator. He said the pandemic dramatically sped up the pace of digital innovation.
“It’s an interesting phenomenon,” Retzlaff said in a separate phone interview with RealVail.com. “We’ve been talking about this theory of digital transformation for the last decade. It was a slow, steady process where companies were starting to become a little bit more present online and people were starting to see the true benefits of using online tools and technology.
“Unfortunately, with the pandemic hitting so fast and forcefully, as it did, in March 2020, when everything shut down and businesses had to go on lockdown, those businesses that didn’t have a strong online presence in place really had to stop everything that they were doing and figure out how to use various online tools because they might not have had that system in place,” he added.
The businesses that were successful in navigating COVID and its public health order shutdowns were the companies that already had some level of tech savvy and then were able to adapt on the fly, Retzlaff said.
“They had to figure out how to use online tools, how to apply them to their business model and start operating that way, and unfortunately a lot of businesses didn’t succeed with that,” he said. “What we’re starting to help figure out now in terms of going from recovery into what Chris Romer from Vail Valley Partnership said is resiliency is how do we help these businesses that are still around and still struggling and trying to maintain some sort of business operation presence, how do we get them to become resilient?”
The Vail Valley Partnership – the valley-wide chamber of commerce locally – has been working tirelessly to help its membership stay up on technological innovations. The Connected Commerce Council also is offering seminars and support.
Romer wants Colorado officials to continue to back the digital transformation by pushing pro-tech policies and minimizing regulations.
“Colorado’s political leadership absolutely needs to play a role in supporting small businesses, and frankly one of the best ways to do that is embracing technology, digital tools, and broadband infrastructure,” Romer said. “Colorado is a global community competing for talent, investment, and jobs. We need to be pro-technology and view these tools and resources as our partners in recovery and partners in economic growth – not from an overly regulatory standpoint.”
Mark Wong, owner of Wong Wares art gallery and sculpting school in Manitou Springs, discussed how his business had to pivot during the pandemic as in-person classes ended and he had to go fully digital.
“I needed to find a way for people to get their hands on some clay – and be safe about it. So, I started a service where I dropped off a work board and clay and created a YouTube channel where customers could see how to do some hand-building at home,” Wong said.
Tourism groups and local chambers can be critical to helping small businesses adjust.
“As the pandemic wore on, we created an e-commerce site in a matter of weeks, giving a platform for local small businesses. We had a number of business owners who said, without this tool, they may have gone out of business,” said Cynthia Eichler, president and CEO of Visit Fort Collins. “We’ve seen how creative and innovativ we can be, and I think there is more of that to come.”
To view a recording of the full webinar, click here.