In Christmases past, Denver looked to draw holiday visitors from Kansas, Nebraska and New Mexico.
They're still on the wish list. But this year Denver is wooing travelers much closer to home — including Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, about an hour's drive away.
It's an unprecedented effort to boost sagging holiday business. The economy has people reconsidering vacation plans, and tourist hot spots like Las Vegas have seen visitor numbers dip 10 percent in recent months.
Denver's tourism bureau is spending about $500,000 for the holiday campaign, matched by in-kind donations from attractions and in advertising and discounts. The annual budget of Visit Denver, funded largely by lodging taxes, is roughly $14 million.
"Denver is a mini-getaway in a time when value and proximity may be the best way to get an escape with the economic conditions the way they are," said Jayne Buck, Visit Denver's vice president for tourism.
Denver hotel occupancy can dip below 50 percent on some days in December, one of the slowest months for convention bookings, Buck said. With 600 miles to go to the next big city, more overnight vacationers fly than drive to Denver. And that's just the sort of traveler who is less likely to come in tough economic times.
So tourism officials this year are courting neighbors in Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Pueblo and Grand Junction in Colorado, plus Cheyenne and Casper in Wyoming.
In those six close-in markets, Denver has added radio ads and giveaways, banking on the idea that nearby residents are more susceptible to spontaneous overnight trips.
In recent weeks, tourism promoters attended local events like a holiday lighting ceremony in the southern city of Pueblo, giving away trinkets and urging Pueblo residents to consider a night in Colorado's big city.
At least 18 Denver hotels have rooms starting at $52.80 per night through January. The price is a nod to the Mile High City's elevation of 5,280 feet.
Guests specifically have to ask for the rate at The Oxford Hotel, a historic, luxury hotel in the heart of downtown where regular rates are at least twice as much.
"I'd rather take a guest staying with me at $52.80 than zero," general manager Ed Blair said.
Vicki Brooks Bramble, 57, of suburban Centennial said she and her daughter probably wouldn't have spent a night in Denver this holiday season after enjoying holiday lights, restaurants and events if it hadn't been for the special rate.
"It's affordable. That's why we take advantage of it," she said. "It's a great treat for us."
The Oxford expects to end the year with 78 percent occupancy for 2008, down from the typical 80 percent, although November finished at 80 percent, Blair said.
Some hotels may even be cheaper. Darren Labrum of Provo, Utah, said he used Priceline.com when he came to Colorado this month to see his friend, rookie linebacker Spencer Larsen of the Denver Broncos, play the Kansas City Chiefs. The price of his room in suburban Denver: $39, about half off.
"It was such a good deal that I decided to take it," Labrum said.
Looking for help
Buck said Denver is not trying to compete with ski towns. But some ski towns are looking to Denver for help this holiday.
Vail is spending $550,000 in surplus revenue to entice Front Range visitors to head to the mountains.
"If we can push the needle, for people on the bubble to go ahead and come up, that's what we're looking for," Vail town spokeswoman Suzanne Silverthorn said.
The new tourism campaign, which lasts through April, marks the first time in years that Vail has spent money on marketing during the winter, Silverthorn said.
More than 110 Vail businesses joined the effort with discounts. About 150,000 Vail Resorts Inc. ski customers received direct mail about the campaign, which targets visitors from other states but also the Front Range, where many season ski pass holders live.
"It's a big market that is right in our backyard," said Chris Romer of the Vail Valley Partnership.
The Breckenridge Resort Chamber is pouring $250,000 into ski deals and advertising to fill hotel rooms still unsold just two weeks before Christmas. Breckenridge officials are targeting visitors from Dallas and Chicago who they believe are more likely to stay longer than drive-in guests.
With vacancy rates for Christmas around 30 percent — rooms typically would've been sold out by now — Breckenridge chamber officials are promoting 20 percent discounts on certain lodging and lift ticket packages.
"People are scaling back on their Christmas spending. For a lot of people that means scaling back on a holiday vacation," said Carly Grimes of the Breckenridge Resort Chamber.
"We usually don't have to market the holiday season at all," Grimes said. "It usually sells itself."