The past year in Southwest Colorado has been tough for the tourism industry. Perhaps not as brutal as a Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan, but brutal enough that regional business leaders in tourism found a military acronym useful in describing how they’ve coped with blows thrown at them.
VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – an acronym developed at the U.S. Army War College to describe a battlefield environment – somehow seemed apt for an industry dependent on winter snow, spring runoff and summer monsoons.
VUCA, which has been adapted to the fast-changing environments businesses face in the digital age of disruption, was introduced Wednesday as a conference theme by Gregory Bunch, an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the keynote speaker at La Plata County Economic Development Alliance’s 12th annual Economic Summit held at the Sky Ute Casino.
Al Harper, owner of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad; James Coleman, managing partner and CEO of Mountain Capital Partners and Purgatory Resort; and Aaron Kimple, program director at the Mountain Studies Institute, discussed how they coped in the past year when all the weather-dependent variables they rely on went awry.
Coleman said VUCA describes the situation Purgatory finds itself in dealing with the uncertain fates of winter snow.
“But you can extend VUCA to everything that we do,” he said.
From attracting more families, dealing with a labor shortage to enhancing forest health and dealing with fire mitigation around Purgatory, Coleman said VUCA is an apt description.
“Families are desperate for quality time,” he said. “We have to examine, how do we create those experiences to make them want to come back? There’s an incredible amount of competition for this right now.”
Adding a 4,000-foot roller-coaster with a vertical drop of 300 feet, Coleman said, is part of the resort’s efforts to attract more families and to become a more all-season destination.
The resort allows children up to age 10 a free ski pass, and Purgatory plans to expand the program in the next two years to children up to age 12. While giving away free passes might seem counterintuitive for a business, Coleman said the program has consistently attracted more families and helped the bottom line.
“The more we give, the more we get back,” Coleman said. “It’s been successful for us for decades. I totally think that’s an overall life principle.”
Kimple said Silverton now has about 500 wintertime residents, up from a little more than a hundred 15 years ago, and that comes in part from Mountain Studies Institute’s effort to help diversify the town’s economy while protecting ecological, sociological and economic values.
Mountain Studies is focused on community-driven science, Kimple said. The institute communicates its research to the public, with the aim of finding applications useful for communities from Silverton to Taos, New Mexico.
“We try to do science people can use – don’t freak out,” he said.
After purchasing the D&SNG, Harper said on his first ride, he noticed he was the youngest passenger on a Silverton run. “That’s not a good model from a demographic perspective.”
The Polar Express, he said, was D&SNG’s effort to deal with the uncertainty of nurturing a sustainable business model in the face of demographic vulnerabilities.
The effort has been successful – he noted D&SNG has sold 12,000 tickets so far for Polar Express runs in December. He anticipates the Polar Express will carry about 35,000 passengers during its 45-day season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.
The train will also be adding a more affordable run from Rockwood to Cascade – opening a new market for families who previously could not afford the Durango-to-Silverton run.
The changes come, he said, as the train adapts to a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment.
Speaking of the year’s challenges, Harper said: “Somewhere about May 15, I didn’t know it at the time, but I’ve been VUCAed. I don’t know if there’s a shot for that.”