Tourism agencies have well-crafted marketing campaigns to draw in targeted crowds. But when natural disasters happen, they have to pivot to crisis communication to keep their message on point.
The Durango Area Tourism Office is working overtime now to keep misperceptions about Durango at bay after the 416 Fire broke out June 1. Tourists are largely unaware of the fire, and if they have heard about it, many have faulty impressions spreading on the internet.
DATO’s main focus of its crisis communication plan is to relay accurate information to media and journalists covering the fire that commerce on Main Avenue is largely unaffected by the fire burning 10 miles north of Durango.
“Right now, we are responding to people who have inquiries. We want to provide accurate information and let people know we’re open for business and doing good. The fire hasn’t affected activity in Durango, and there’s plenty of things to do,” said Frank Lockwood, DATO executive director.
The fire is not at the stage where it would require any additional advertising buys to explain the situation, Lockwood said.
“The most important information to get out is that the Million Dollar Highway is closed off and on. The main thing is to communicate how things are going with the fire, and that the fire is 10 miles north of town,” he said.
Tourism, Lockwood said last week, had been largely unaffected by the 416 Fire. Monday the fire was listed at 22,130 acres and at 10 percent containment.
Still, a fire that extends through June can’t help but hurt.
Jim Harper, general manager of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, said if the train is forced to close for the month of June, the train’s second busiest month after July, it will deliver a $33 million hit to the local economy.
And Ken Boden, who has owned Handlebars Food & Saloon in Silverton for 29 years, said Greene Street is still getting some foot traffic, but Blair Street is dead.
“I’ve never seen it where the train and the highway are both closed. It’s devastating,” he said. “The only thing that’s saving us is we’re on Greene Street, and there’s some traffic. If you’re on Blair Street, you don’t have a chance in hell.”
The Durango Visitor Center, 802 Main Ave., is selling between 200 and 300 tickets a day for tours at Mesa Verde National Park, a good indication of a strong tourism season. Lockwood also noted that the vibrant foot traffic on Main Avenue belies any indication the fire has yet to squeeze Durango’s economy.
The Colorado Tourism Office is also working with DATO to get out accurate fire information, Lockwood said. DATO and the city have been preparing a communication strategy for fire season for months given the winter’s paltry snowpack, he said.
DATO has also sent out information about the fire to other tourism marketing organizations around the state, so they too can provide accurate information to tourists looking at regional tours.
Nevertheless, misconceptions persist, Lockwood said.
“People are overgeneralizing about the evacuations,” he said. “I was asked a few days ago if Durango was evacuated. I was like, ‘Heavens no. Where did that come from?’ So, we want to clean up any misconceptions that are really bad for business. Now, let’s hope for containment and good monsoons.”
DATO’s tourism advertising budget is about $1 million, funded by the lodgers tax on rooms in Durango and La Plata County.
Lockwood said the budget is unaffected by the fire, and the fire would not likely change the advertising plan for the year unless it grew substantially worse.
DATO is under contract with Treehouse Communications of Durango for public relations work to get travel articles written about Durango and for assistance with crisis communications. He said it is conceivable the agency would assess more billable hours to DATO because of the fire, but he said the cost would be negligible to DATO’s total budget – similar to the cost of an employee’s overtime.
Lockwood said he has not heard of hotel room cancellations in worrying numbers.
About a quarter of the tourists at the Visitor Center have heard about the fire, he said. “We heard about it on Facebook,” said Emily Harris, a newlywed honeymooning in Durango with her husband, John Harris. John said the couple was not concerned.
“We’re pretty familiar with the Mountain West, and fires happen. It hasn’t changed our plans. We’re staying in Dolores, and we had planned on visiting Telluride and Silverton. We’re on our honeymoon, so we were coming no matter what. We may not make it to Silverton.”
Angelo and Frances Poletto, visiting from Sauble Beach, Ontario, Canada, also read about the fire on the internet, but they were headed for Mesa Verde and then Monument Valley, having visited Durango and Silverton previously.
“We were here 15 years ago, and boy has it changed – the modernization. It’s changed a lot. And for us, not really for the better. We like sleepy, little places,” Angelo said.
Sarah Harriman and Augusto Roman, visiting from Longmont, also headed to Mesa Verde. They said they were unaffected by the 416 Fire.
“We have been following the fire, just to make sure we didn’t get caught up in the middle of it or be in the way,” Harriman said.
Roman added, “We were coming down here, and usually fires are a thing you watch for.”