Leisure travel shows strong return amid continuing struggles in business travel sectors

In 2021, Denver welcomed 31.7 million visitors, regaining much of the losses experienced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Growth was particularly strong in the domestic overnight leisure market, while flat growth in business travel segments, and the lack of an overseas international market last year, shows that the industry – in Denver and across the country – still has a ways to go to catch up with the benchmark year of 2019. That said, the numbers are a cause for cautious optimism as travelers hit the road in large numbers last year and spent similar to pre-COVID levels. Travel spending by all visitors to Denver in 2021 reached $6.6 billion, a figure not far from the record $7 billion spent in 2019.

The new data are part of the 2021 Longwoods International annual visitor profile study. Longwoods has been studying Denver visitors since 1994 and conducts research that provides a standard visitor tracking tool for many of the country’s top tourism destinations.

Longwoods also studied the impacts of VISIT DENVER’s marketing efforts, showing a strong return on investment during the key 2021 summer travel season.

“This year’s report really illustrates the wild ride that we experienced last year,” said Richard Scharf, president and CEO of VISIT DENVER. “In many regards, travel did its job in 2021, creating billions in spending at local businesses, generating millions in state and local taxes, and supporting tens of thousands of jobs.”

Overnight visitation from the leisure market was particularly strong in 2021, hitting 14.8 million, a 27% increase over 2020, including a 26% increase from “marketable” visitors, the primary focus of VISIT DENVER’s promotional efforts. Total overnight visitation, a figure that combines leisure and business travel, hit 16.6 million, a 24% increase over 2020. Overall visitation to Denver, a combination of day and overnight travel, hit 31.7 million visitors in 2021, a 14.5% increase over 2020. Overnight business travel increased a modest 3% in 2021 to 1.8 million.

Spending by overnight visitors increased in 2021 to $5.5 billion, a 29% increase over 2020. Among all traveler types, business travelers spent the most at $173 per day, followed by marketable leisure visitors at $158 per day.

“Tourism continues to be a key economic driver for our city, and we are pleased to see travel demand return,” said Scharf. “That said, these results occurred before the current headwinds we are experiencing, from the Omicron wave earlier this year, the sharp increase in travel costs, continued softness in the group and business travel market, and the delayed return of the international visitor into 2023.”

Longwoods International also conducted Return on Investment (ROI) research for VISIT DENVER’s 2021 summer advertising campaign, its largest of the year. The study revealed some of the strongest ROI numbers VISIT DENVER has seen, showing that the campaign generated 1.2 million incremental trips, generating $338 million in incremental visitor spending and $38 million in state and local taxes. Measured against spending, the campaign generated an ROI of $151 in visitor spending and $17 in taxes for every $1 in advertising investment.

Key numbers for 2021 include:

  • Denver welcomed 31.7 total visitors in 2021, including 16.6 million overnight visitors and 15.1 million day visitors, a 14.5% increase over 2020.
  • Overnight leisure visitors totaled 14.8 million in 2021, a 27% increase over 2020.
  • There were 7.1 million “marketable” leisure visitors in 2021, a 26% increase over 2020. This segment has the most discretion on where to vacation and responds to tourism marketing. This audience is the primary focus of much of VISIT DENVER’s marketing efforts and spends more time and money in-market than any other leisure visitor type.
  • Denver visitors spent $6.6 billion in 2021, including $5.5 billion from overnight visitors and an additional $1.1 billion in spending from day visitors, a 26.2% increase over 2020.
  • Denver overnight visitors spent more than $1.5 billion on accommodations, and $974 million on food and beverages.
  • Expenditures by overnight visitors on transportation reached more than $1.8 billion. Retail purchases were $700 million, while overnight visitors spent nearly $500 million on paid attractions and other recreational and sightseeing activities.
  • On average in 2021, the biggest spenders were business travelers, who spent $173 per day; followed by marketable visitors, who spent $158 per day. Day visitors spent $73 per day.
  • Out-of-state overnight leisure travelers comprised 78 percent of visitors (up from 76 percent in 2020).

The top states sending vacationers to Denver in 2021, apart from Colorado itself, were:

  • Texas
  • California
  • Florida
  • Arizona

The top cities from outside of Colorado sending leisure visitors to Denver in 2021 were:

  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX*
  • New York City, NY
  • Albuquerque/Santa Fe, NM*
  • Chicago, IL*
  • Houston, TX*
  • Orlando-Daytona Beach, FL

*Denotes a VISIT DENVER advertising market

Top 2021 Visitor Attractions*

  • Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre**
  • Denver Art Museum
  • Denver Zoo
  • Colorado Rockies
  • Water World
  • Denver Botanic Gardens
  • Elitch Gardens Theme & Water Park
  • Downtown Aquarium
  • Colorado State Capitol**
  • Denver Broncos
  • Denver Museum of Nature & Science/IMAX Theater
  • Buffalo Bill’s Museum/Grave
  • Denver Nuggets
  • Butterfly Pavilion
  • History Colorado Center
  • Colorado Railroad Museum
  • Children’s Museum of Denver
  • Colorado Avalanche
  • Colorado Rapids
  • Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)

*Based on survey responses
**Denotes a free attraction

Top 2021 Shopping/Entertainment Areas*

  • 16th Street Mall
  • Cherry Creek
  • Denver Pavilions
  • Denver Union Station
  • Park Meadows Retail Resort
  • Larimer Square

*Based on survey responses