On his first day as the boss at Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade, Pat Meyers dismissed Cathy Ritter, the well-regarded director of the Colorado Tourism Office.
“Cathy Ritter has concluded her service with the Colorado Tourism Office. We thank her for contributions to the state and we wish her the best of luck,” read a statement sent late Thursday afternoon by the “CTO Team” to tourism officials around the state.
Jill Corbin, who served as Ritter’s deputy director, will lead the agency in the interim. A search for a new director will begin soon.
Ritter’s mobile phone, which she has used since she was hired as Colorado’s tourism boss, was not in service Thursday evening and she could not be reached by her state email for comment. Tourism officials around the state privately expressed dismay at the sudden dismissal of a well-respected national leader in the tourism industry, but declined to comment about her departure on the record.
Earlier this week, Colorado’s OEDIT office crowed that Ritter was among five new trustees tapped to guide the international, U.K.-based Travel Foundation, which operates in 30 countries to help maximize the benefits and reduce the impacts of tourism.
“I’m looking forward to cross-pollinating its innovative thinking with ideas emerging in Colorado and elsewhere in North America,” Ritter said in a statement released Monday. “Finding ways to identify and address visitor impacts is absolutely essential to securing the future health of the world’s biggest industry and ensuring that it delivers maximum benefits for tourism destinations.”
Ritter was the head of Illinois’ tourism office before she was hired in Colorado in 2015. She landed at a tumultuous time. Marijuana was newly legalized and weed-based tourism was a contentious topic that challenged travel promoters who argued marijuana-friendly marketing could violate federal laws.
At the same time, the state was setting annual records for tourism. And destination communities — with and without weed travelers — were growing weary of the deluge of visitors.
After a nearly year-long tour of the state and 20 listening sessions where she heard plenty about the then-new notion of “overtourism,” Ritter built a comprehensive plan for sustainable travel. The idea was to spread visitors around the state and fill the valleys between peak visitation surges.
After six years of record-setting tourism numbers, the 2017 Colorado Tourism Roadmap emphasized a right-people, right-place, right-time approach to travel marketing that replaced a wide net cast to lure as many tourists as possible.
Ritter’s plan worked. In 2018 and 2019, total visitation numbers to Colorado plateaued while spending by travelers climbed beyond $22 billion a year.
Last spring, as gaming revenues that support tourism marketing evaporated when the coronavirus shut down casinos, Gov. Jared Polis’s OEDIT considered an 87% cut to the Colorado Tourism Office’s $18.5 million annual budget.
Lawmakers eventually restored most of the tourism’s office budget, concluding tourism would support an economic rebound from the pandemic.
In recent years, Colorado tourism has grown at twice the national rate, with visitor spending supporting 174,000 tourism jobs and generating $1.4 billion in local and state taxes. Even with the Colorado Tourism Office suspending marketing to big-spending, out-of-state and international visitors last spring, many tourist-dependent communities saw a strong rebound in the fall and winter of 2020 as in-state visitors explored their own backyards.
Last fall, Ritter directed her office’s national marketing dollars toward a joint effort with federal land managers, search and rescue teams and the state’s outdoor recreation office in a campaign to better educate backcountry travelers about avalanche hazards in Colorado.
Ritter led the Colorado Tourism Office to become the country’s first to develop a destination stewardship plan that educated travelers about reducing their impacts. The CTO’s partnership with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics created a “Care for Colorado” campaign that encouraged visitors to pick up after themselves and respect landscapes and wildlife. Ritter also is the chair of the National Council of State Tourism Directors and serves on the executive committee of the U.S. Travel Association as well as the Western States Tourism Policy Council.
Meyers replaces Betsy Markey in leading OEDIT and in addition to that job he serves as Polis’ chief economic recovery officer, a new position. A chief of staff to former Gov. John Hickenlooper, Meyers also served many years as legal counsel for Rick Schaden, the often–sued owner of Colorado-based Quiznos and Smashburger fast-casual restaurant chains. Meyers was a part owner of both restaurant companies.