Legal marijuana hasn’t slowed down the convention business in Colorado. VISIT DENVER reported a surge in total groups coming to the city in 2015 (747, up from 628 in 2013) and in economic impact ($773 million, up from about $665 million). The state’s first recreational marijuana retailers opened their doors Jan. 1, 2014.
Many relevant statewide visitation metrics also hit new highs in the last two years. In 2014, Colorado set all-time records welcoming 71.3 million visitors to the state who spent $18.6 billion. Likewise, crime is largely down across the state and tax income is up, but most of the effects of legalization have been something of a letdown considering the buzz.
Hotels.com reported an immediate 25 percent uptick in Denver searches after recreational dispensaries opened. Kieffer Parrino, general manager of Bear Creek Lodge in Mountain Village near Telluride, says that questions about legal marijuana led to the property developing an informational brochure. “There are definitely people coming here for that specific reason, and if they’re not coming for that specific reason, they sure are inquisitive,” he laughs.
Parrino says guests often leave marijuana in the room because they don’t want to fly with it. “The biggest problem we’ve been having is people leaving contraband behind and my staff being accountable for it,” he says. “Other than that, I believe it has been a boost for the economy.”
Impacts on Meetings & Events
Legalizing marijuana’s impact on the art and science of planning meetings has been pretty subtle as well. Leslie Heins, principal of Affair with Flair in Englewood, says the impact on business from legalization has been minimal. “For us, it’s having no effect,” says Heins.
But Heins says including marijuana in events opens planners up to a lot of liability. “Say they have a slew of out-of-towners and they want to put edibles in their event bags. There’s no information on how much they should take,” she says. “You don’t know how it’s going to go.”
Heins also points out the difficulty of finding a legal location to partake. Marijuana smoking is only allowed in private places in Colorado, including homes and event venues if the event in question is closed to the general public. It’s also legally allowed in some moving vehicles, namely privately hired limousines and buses.
If an event attendee brings marijuana out of the state, Heins adds, it might come back to haunt the planner. “They certainly would come back to us and say, ‘The event planners put it in the bag, we thought we could bring it home,’” she says.
“There are so many things that could go wrong,” Heins continues. “I think you have to have the conversation. I think you have to say, ‘These are your pros and cons.’”
She notes it’s all about education: “It’s probably no different than alcohol, but people are educated about alcohol.”
Anne O’Neill, chief strategist of OES Management in Lakewood and professor for trade show classes at Metropolitan State University of Denver, calls legalization’s impact on meetings “a wash,” noting, “Nobody says, ‘I’m not going to Denver because they all smoke pot.’”
Describing herself as “pretty straitlaced,” O’Neill focuses on events for nonprofits with 100 attendees or less, and she definitely has fielded a few calls with questions about marijuana.
O’ Neill advises local event planners to take a crash course in marijuana laws: “The bottom line for a meeting planner is this is reality. Educate yourself.”
She depicts her approach as the same as with other vices, explaining, “This group likes cigar bars. This group likes single-malt scotch. I try to find out about what the groups are interested in.”
And if the group is interested in marijuana? It behooves the planner to “know the regulations and what you can do,” O’Neill says. “Just like knowing the liquor laws, which change a lot. … It’s part of life right now.”
She likens it to planning events in Utah before liquor laws were normalized. “You had to understand it and deal with it. Same thing here.” She laughs, “My kids joke about, ‘My mom’s an expert on pot.’”
O’Neill agrees with Heins that marijuana isn’t a good choice for event bags, largely because of concerns about potency. “Would you put a pack of cigarettes in a gift bag?” she asks. “I would not put liquor in a gift bag.”
And there’s another aspect to keep in mind, adds O’Neill. “Let’s not forget, at the federal level, this is not legal.”
However, O’Neill doesn’t see marijuana “scaring people off.” She concludes, “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t smoke pot who didn’t smoke pot before. People who come here for the atmosphere, the prices and the activities aren’t going to see a massive change.”
Whole New Market
However, marijuana opens up a whole new market for meeting planners. “I’ve had a few inquiries from people who want to do an event for the cannabis industry,” O’Neill says. “It’s probably a niche event.”
Niche, yes, but also national. Colorado, as a hub for all things marijuana, has hosted numerous big events that have come to the state in the wake of legalization, including the High Times Cannabis Cup and Cannabis Business Summit & Expo, both held in Denver in 2015.
New and returned residents also have been attracted. Take Jane West. While working for a company in Washington, D.C., she produced events that drew more than 10,000 people for President Obama’s inaugurations in both 2009 and 2013. But West saw a future working out West when Colorado legalized recreational marijuana and the first such stores opened on New Year’s Day in 2014. “I love marijuana,” says West, “and when recreational marijuana became legal, I came home and started an events business in Colorado.”
Now based in Denver, her initial mission was to produce events with “great food and great music where I could get high,” she says. It’s been a bit of an uphill battle. West’s Edible Events produced marijuana-friendly parties with cannabis gardens that resulted in her getting misdemeanor charges in Denver, where adult consumption is still not legal outside of private homes, and her Classically Cannabis concert with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra generated snarky headlines worldwide.
But West takes what she’s doing very seriously. She founded Women Grow, now in 50 cities, to help catalyze the success of women in the cannabis industry.
Calling the state’s promotion of craft beer while ignoring marijuana “appalling,” West obviously thinks that local event planners need not hold legal marijuana at arm’s length. “At the end of the day, this isn’t about marijuana or legalization, this is about liberty,” says West. “This is about adults gathering and consuming a safer substance than alcohol if they choose to do so.”
Dos and Don’ts
» You must be 21 years old to buy marijuana.
» Only licensed stores (better known as dispensaries) can sell marijuana.
» Recreational retail marijuana requires the buyer to present valid ID, and medical marijuana requires a state-issued “red card.”
» Nonresidents can purchase a quarter-ounce at a time.
» Marijuana cannot be consumed at the dispensary or in public.
» Most hotels do not allow guests to smoke marijuana in their rooms.
» Driving while stoned can result in DUI charges.
» Different cities have different policies and local laws; do your research on specific municipal restrictions.
» Do not leave the state with marijuana or infused products.
» For additional information, go to colorado.gov/pacific/marijuanainfodenver/residents-visitors.