Deep in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, leaders from five hot springs destinations have come together to form the Colorado Historic Hot Springs Loop – a 720-mile (1,159km) road trip through 19 thermal facilities, national parks and monuments, scenic byways and outdoor wellness activities.
The idea had its genesis in 2015, when the Colorado Tourism Office put together a package for collaborative marketing grants. Heidi Pankow, public relations manager for the Ouray Chamber Resort Association, spoke to colleagues at nearby Pagosa Springs about how they might work together to showcase the state as a destination for hot springs. The two visitors bureaus then approached other nearby regions of Steamboat Springs, Glenwood Springs and Chaffee County, and an itinerary soon emerged.
“Because each region and the individual hot springs facilities are so different, the Loop allows people to enjoy a variety of experiences,” says Pankow. “When we mapped it, we realised each destination is about three hours’ drive from the last stop. This makes a perfect five- to seven-day driving itinerary, or several short weekend getaway opportunities.”
The Loop connects 19 thermal facilities along mostly two-lane, scenic byways through the Rocky Mountains, and also highlights other tourist destinations along the way. “These hot springs are in the most beautiful part of Colorado,” explains public relations specialist Vicky Nash, who serves as the coordinator of the project. “That’s why collaborating with the destination areas has worked so well – we wanted to market the whole experience.”
The hot springs facilities boast a wide variety of thermal features – from intimate private baths to the world’s largest mineral hot springs pool – as well as vapour caves, hot pots, terraced pools, travertine formations and aquatic centres.
Nash manages communications, writing grant requests and reports and ordering collateral, but the partners all help both creatively and financially; a contribution of US$5,000 (€4,078, £3,601) from each of the five locations is matched by the state tourism office each year, which means the Loop has an annual marketing budget of US$50,000 (€40,780, £36,010).
“As one of the smallest destinations, we look for any collaboration opportunities that we can participate in,” says Pankow, whose region is often referred to as ‘the Switzerland of America’. “The Loop allows us to stretch our marketing budget and participate in programmes we wouldn’t be able to afford on our own. People who are fans of hot springs are willing to search out new locations, so we’re all receiving more exposure by working together.”
Part of the increased exposure comes in the form of media attention; since the Loop’s inception, more than 50 stories have appeared in major consumer publications including USA Today, The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, amonth others, with an estimated value of US$6m (€5m, £4.3m).
“This coverage is invaluable to our small town; we couldn’t afford to pay for the kind of marketing that would reach these audiences,” says Pankow.
The marketing budget also means that brochures and other collateral material have been produced in English, Chinese, Japanese and German – key languages for developing an increasingly international clientele with an interest in hot springs. “Every one of the facilities was getting Japanese and German tourists regularly, but there are more and more international flights coming to Colorado,” says Nash.
The Loop appears to be paying off as well; in just two years, each of the five destinations has experienced higher accommodations tax collections – a measure of visitor numbers – with increases ranging from 4 to 20 per cent. “It’s been successful in a pretty short period of time,” says Nash. “All of the visitation is up – every single destination had increased numbers.”
In today’s busy world, many consumers are looking for inspiration that’s packaged up in a neat itinerary. “Travellers like itineraries, and the Colorado Historic Hot Springs Loop provides the ideas and inspiration to map-out a bucket-list-worthy hot springs road trip through the Rocky Mountains,” says Steve Beckley, owner of both Iron Mountain Hot Springs and Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park. “Each of the 19 stops on the Loop has something unique and special to offer. Together, the Loop becomes the destination, and we all benefit.”
The inspiration includes not just hot springs, but scenic drives, stops in the Rocky Mountains National Park, and activities in nature, from hiking to whitewater rafting to skiing. There are also heritage trains, ghost towns and mining opportunities. It’s this wide-ranging wellness itinerary, combined with a focus on the history of many of the hot springs – many of which have been around since the 1800s – that has helped put western Colorado firmly in the spotlight.
“The importance of wellness to our physical and mental health is gaining awareness in leaps and bounds in the US, at the same time that heritage travel is on the rise,” explains Beckley. “The Loop combines these trends with the adventure of a Western road trip.”
But beyond the increases in visitor numbers, the Loop has meant a new kind of collaboration for many of the hot springs facilities. For instance, as a newcomer to the scene – Iron Mountain Hot Springs only opened in 2015 – Beckley gained insight and ideas from both Old Town Hot Springs and Avalanche Ranch. “It’s created a relationship that’s more collaborative than competitive,” says Beckley.
Pankow has a similar story. “We’ve built great relationships with our partners, and are able to reach out for ideas, best practices, professional opinions and advice,” she says.
The team’s efforts have garnered a number of awards, including Best Idea from the Destination Marketing Association of the West, Best Campaign from the Colorado Tourism Office, and the Colorado Business Roundtable’s Collaboration in Industry award. “It’s kind of surprising how successful it’s been so quickly,” says Nash.
Nash says the next phase will involve making more formalised packages, with hotel stays, rental cars, skiing passes and attractions admissions all grouped together for the consumer. The ultimate goal is to get international tour operators to put hot springs on their itineraries.
She also hopes the group’s success will provide fodder to create a Hot Springs Association of the US, where there are an estimated 215 facilities.
“The US is behind the curve when it comes to hot springs awareness,” says Nash. “For consumers, the first thing that pops into their head is the recreational aspect, rather than the wellness aspect. The wellness aspect is huge, and we all need to work more closely on that.”
For now, the group is thrilled with how their five voices have united as one – and how the world is paying more attention to Colorado as a thermal spa destination. “It’s raising awareness of just how many hot springs choices there are in Colorado, which benefits all of us,” says Beckley.