In Colorado, with the snow comes the tourists. And with the tourists comes the customers.
“Like everything in those towns, tourism is what drives most of the business,” says Alex Levine, chief development officer at Green Dragon, a chain of 15 cannabis retail stores across Colorado, including three in major ski towns.
Levine estimates that, unlike in Denver, 60-70% of the business at the company’s Aspen, Breckenridge and Telluride shops are tourists, who are now making cannabis a regular part of their visits to the No. 1 skiing destination state in the country.
At Sweet Leaf Pioneer in Eagle, located right near the airport about 15 minutes outside Vail, business increases by 50% in the winter as throngs of people make their way to the mountains.
“It has been a great business in the ski towns,” says Sweet Leaf Pioneer co-founder Dieneka Manzanares, adding “We do depend on the tourists.”
And depending on tourists means doing things just a bit different, even in cannabis retail, from product selection to budtender training to merchandise and even preparing for the lean months of “mud season” when it’s just the locals.
“You’ve gotta make hay when the people are there,” says Ric Scicchitano, chief operating officer for the Telluride Bud Company.
At his store in Telluride, Scicchitano estimates that 80% of customers during ski season are tourists. During “peak season” it’s even higher with 10 tourists coming in the store for every one local.
Telluride Bud Company is located right at the base of the gondola, he says, and because of that, the store in Telluride, as well as one in Durango, is different from the other stores in the chain, particularly in product selection and in how employees are trained to handle customers.
Locals want to get in and out with the best deal and back to their lives; tourists tend to take their time and are open to spending more money.
“They are less price sensitive than the locals,” Scicchitano says. “They are on vacation.”
He also says the tourists at TBC not only lean more toward vape cartridges, pre-rolls and edibles — since they have no place to smoke flower — but also toward more high-end items like the company’s top-shelf Telluride Gold brand (90% of Telluride Gold purchases come from tourists). He also says tourists are more likely to experiment with products like tinctures, balms and even infused lubricants.
“They’re very excited to see everything,” she says, noting that she also stocks low-THC items and CBD products, primarily for tourists looking to try something new.
At Ascent Cannabis in Mammoth Lakes, California, just a mile down Main Street from the Canyon Lodge at Mammoth Mountain, managing partner Robert Calvert says he stocks more than 800 products to make sure visitors can find whatever they are looking for, even if it’s a mostly regional product or brand found in a specific part of the state. Most of Ascent’s customers come from other parts of California and not necessarily from out of state.
“They look forward to the variety we have here,” Calvert says, but notes that while 50% of his sales are flower, the tourists lean toward pre-rolls, gummies and drinks, as well as tinctures, balms and bath bombs to help relieve the aches and pains of a day of skiing.
Even at a smaller store in a smaller resort town, like Miracle Greens in Bend, Oregon, where the tourists only account for about 25% of the customer base, owner Mike Hayes keeps more pre-rolls and cartridges in stock for people on the move.
“They’re not set up to be doing any dabbing,” Hayes says of the out-of-towners who frequent his shop during ski season. “It’s got to be portable.”
An analysis of sales in Colorado’s ski towns by Headset shows the difference in store stock.
“We can see that customers in a tourist shop are much less likely to purchase flower but much more likely to purchase an edible, topical or vapor pen product than in the rest of Colorado,” Headset data analyst Cooper Ashley says.
According to Ashley, shops in tourist cities like Aspen, Breckenridge, Telluride, Vail and others show that the market share for edibles in tourist shops is 25.5%, up from 13.3% in the rest of the state, while flower sales drop from 46% to 26.9% in ski towns. The market share for vape pens increases slightly in ski towns (from 16% to 19.8%) while topicals more than double in share from 1.4% statewide to 3.7% of sales in tourist towns.
Training and timing
But with the boom in tourists comes a higher educational component for budtenders, as many of the people who come into the shop are not necessarily familiar with some of the modern ways to consume cannabis, like concentrates. For the budtenders, that means taking more time with customers.
“You have to treat the tourists different,” Scicchitano says. “You have to educate them.”
Scicchitano says that means understanding that each transaction with a tourist could take “remarkably longer” than with a local.
Levine agrees, noting that tourists were more “leisurely” in their shopping and require more attention from staff. He noted that while location may still be the most important factor in success, after that it is like any other retail environment: price and customer service.
He says Green Dragon tries to create a “cool, fun” environment that is not intimidating.
At Ascent, Calvert follows a similar view. The store is laid out to give people room to move around and shop, simulating the feel of a Sephora store. He says his employees are instructed to create a comfortable and pressure-free experience for customers, many of whom are drawn in by “window shopping” through the large, clear windows that required a local variance to include in Ascent’s design.
But done right, even tourists can become regulars. Many come back to the same ski destinations year after year, so it’s only natural they’d visit the same pot shops.
“Tourists become very loyal,” Scicchitano says, though he is quick to note that being visible on Google is key to making sure people new in town can find the store to begin with.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Unlike shops in cities that rely on regulars, owners of tourist shops say store merchandise was not only key to promotion, but also a major revenue stream as visitors want to take home a memento of their time in a cannabis shop.
“Merch matters in a town like this,” says Scicchitano, noting that while items such as shirts and hats only account for about 1% of sales in typical shops, it reaches as high as 8-10% of sales in Telluride.
Levine says Green Dragon’s tourist-facing stores have a big focus on merch and accessories.
“We actually sell a good amount of apparel across all of our 15 stores, but we do sell more in the tourist towns for sure,” he says.
At Sweet Leaf Pioneer, Manzanares says the company’s T-shirts and sweatshirts are a big draw among visitors, with buyers gravitating toward one slogan in particular: “The tourists love the ‘Legal in Eagle,’” she says with a laugh. “They just think that’s the best.”
The biggest challenge for any cannabis retail shop in a resort town, however, is simply the seasonal nature of their business. While all of the shops may be aimed at capturing the tourist dollar, every owner mentioned the need to include what locals want as well.
“When there’s no snow on the ground and it’s ‘mud season’ we have to live with the regulars,” Scicchitano says.
Levine says Green Dragon’s Denver and Aurora stores don’t see much difference in traffic from month to month. But at the company’s stores in resort towns, they get “insanely busy” during the winter and in particular, the week between Christmas and New Year’s, but in the offseason, things slow down.
During the offseason, Green Dragon reduces deliveries of new product from once a week to every two weeks and reduces staff and hours.
At Sweet Leaf Pioneer, Manzanares says the key is preparing for the drop-off when tourists are away.
“Now that we have been open for 10 years, we can really plan for it,” she says, noting that, for example, employees are encouraged to take their vacations during the summer. She also says that Sweet Leaf has gotten into the wholesale market since moving into a larger location to help smooth the ups and downs of tourist season.
“If we had stayed at our small shop, I don’t think we would have made it,” she says.
She also says planning ahead to make sure shelves are stocked during snowstorms is important.
“If Vail Pass or Eisenhower Tunnel is closed then everybody suffers!” she says.
At Miracle Greens in Oregon, the snow can also cause travel and supply issues, particularly when vendors can’t get across the pass.
Hayes also cites the seasonality of the tourist market, but says he is proud that his store also appeals strongly enough to locals to not make it completely dependent on visitors, something he recommends for others in resort cities, particularly those in competitive cannabis markets like Bend, or even Aspen and Telluride.
“If we’re all competing for the same market share, it doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “I’m going after the whole circle.”