Although tourism boosters shied away from discussing marijuana right after recreational use was legalized, pot was the focus of a panel yesterday morning at the Colorado Governor's Tourism Conference in Beaver Creek. During "The Marijuana Message,” two experts spoke to an audience of about fifty tourism representatives from around the state about how many tourists are using cannabis, and how the state is working to educate them when they visit.
Denise Miller, executive vice president of Pennsylvania Strategic Marketing and Research Insights (SMARI) has been conducting market research for over forty years, including a survey for Colorado's Come to Life campaign. That project was designed to help the Colorado Tourism Office better understand how tourists are engaging with marijuana when they visit the state; the survey was conducted from the summer of 2013 through last winter.
Fewer tourists are coming to Colorado for the sole purpose of partaking in cannabis-related activities than many people believe, Miller says: 64 percent of the visitors surveyed said marijuana had no influence on their decision to visit the state, while only 5 percent say it was the primary reason for their visit. A total of 12 percent reported visiting a dispensary during their stay.
According to Miller, many tourists were surprised to find they could avoid the cannabis industry altogether when they visited. “There was some concern at first that it would be so prevalent that it would be hard to avoid, and I think people have found that it’s not,” Miller told the group.
The most surprising finding was that tourists who engage with marijuana on their visit are incredibly active, and their visits don't differ much from those of other tourists, Miller said.
“When I started looking at this, I thought it might be fairly different, but it’s not," she explained. "They generally participate in more activities. They are very active and they are doing a variety of different things, so if you’re an attraction or an activity, they’re good for you.”
The activities that tokers reported engaging in included sightseeing and wine tours, historical sights and museums, nightlife, festivals and farmers' markets, according to the survey. As a result, marijuana tourism "might be expanding your audience," Miller said, "bringing in a wider group of people who may look at some of the things Colorado isn’t most known for, so I think that could be positive.”
Although some local companies have capitalized on Colorado’s recreational marijuana policies, Miller warned that businesses shouldn't rely on money coming in from the marijuana boom. “Right now it’s a big part of the decision process, since there are so few places where it’s legalized," she explained. "But that could change very much.... If both Nevada and California make it legal, then it’s going to be less a part of the decision process because it won’t be such a point of differentiation."
She compared the current cannabis situation to that of gambling: Many states legalized gambling and planned to capitalize on the money that would come in from gambling tourism, but then other states legalized gambling, too, and it became much less of an income stream.
The second panelist, Allison Maffey, the retail marijuana education program manager for the State of Colorado, discussed benefits and dangers associated with marijuana tourism, including health concerns.
Marijuana is among the top four reasons tourists visit the emergency rooms in Colorado, she said: Tourists are 60 percent more likely to visit the emergency room for marijuana-related sicknesses than natives. Maffey attributed this high number to a lack of education. Residents are exposed to more information about the drug, the side effects, and how to use the drug safely and legally.
Maffey also addressed the issue of “vacation mentality,” in which visitors get excited and sometimes overdo it. “There’s a reason the hospital in Cancun is really nice. Even though all of us know our limits with alcohol, people go to Cancun and drink too much and end up in the hospital,” Maffey explained. “With that same mentality, that may be what we’re seeing here in Colorado.”
The state has started directing online advertising to out-of-staters using something called “search and retargeting,” according to Maffey. Basically, when someone with an out-of-state IP address searches for information about where to buy or use marijuana in Colorado, they are targeted with ads about the state's Good to Know campaign and information about responsible use.
The Good to Know campaign also opens up when tourists search for marijuana information on the state's colorado.com tourism site, which doesn't have its own section on cannabis.
Good to Know brochures are also available at tourism offices and information booths around the state. But some of those locations keep the pamphlets behind the counter and only present the information when people ask, Maffey noted.
“Only 12 percent of tourists are users," she added, "so we don’t want to say Colorado tourism is marijuana, but if you are here and choose to use, we want to make sure people have the information about educated use.”