Tourism Trailblazer: Richard W. Scharf

We’re lucky to live in a place that has all of the same amazing amenities that big cities do, but without the hassles. We caught up with President and CEO of Visit Denver.

Photo by Paul Miller

Tourism is one of the fastest-growing industries in Colorado—creating jobs and driving economic impact that cultivates a desirable local lifestyle. For Richard W. Scharf, President & CEO of Visit Denver, the challenge of pushing the envelope even farther is high on his list. Scharf advocates that visitors are essential in supporting Colorado’s 28 ski areas, six professional sports teams, and the nation’s largest performing arts complex; not to mention our many museums, 1,000-plus restaurants, and music venues—with more than 140 annual concerts held at Red Rocks Amphitheatre alone. Locals are fortunate for Colorado’s tourists—they visit, enjoy, and leave their money behind.

What brought you to Denver?
“I grew up near Buffalo, NY in the grape farming region, home of Welch’s grape juice. I went to Purdue University thinking I was going to be a mechanical engineer, and then I drifted into industrial management with an industrial engineering minor. During the ‘80s recession, I found myself working for Hilton Hotels in Chicago and was transferred to Denver on a six-month assignment. Fortunately for me and my family, I never left. After a stint working for hotels, I joined the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau (dba. Visit Denver) in sales, leaving at one point to start a small company. I sold that company after four years in 1993 and was asked to come back to Visit Denver, where I have been ever since.”

Describe a typical day for you.
“No two days are the same, and that’s part of what I love about my work. Our 112-year-old, not-for-profit organization is responsible for bringing in conventions and tourists to Denver for the economic benefit of our city, our partners, and our community. I spend about one-third of my time with my exceptional team, and another third of my time with our stakeholder businesses and community leaders, including our incredibly engaged board of directors and the many elected and appointed officials who value what we do. The other third of my time is spent working with our meeting planner customers and keeping my finger on the pulse of our industry, which is vital to future success. Destination marketing is dynamic and fascinating, and booking more than $700M in convention and meeting business a year and welcoming nearly 31.9 million visitors who have generated $7 billion in revenue annually is very fulfilling.”

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What are some of the most fascinating things about your job?
“I think what’s fascinating is the impact we make. We’re really the only entity out there that does what we do, namely marketing the city with the magnitude that we have. Most people don’t understand there’s a whole strategy around bringing visitors to your destination—we are a ‘silent’ industry in many ways, because most of our marketing doesn’t appear in Denver, but our impact is significant. I’ve been lucky enough to work on projects like the Summit of the Eight, the Pope’s World Youth Day, and the 2008 Democratic National Convention, as well as many All-Star Games. In order for our organization to be successful, we have to partner with a lot of people. We don’t ‘own’ anything—the convention center, the hotels and restaurants—but we are influencers and stewards of the Denver brand. Over the years, I feel blessed that Denver has had so many great city and state leaders, a collaborative business community, and other community organizations all rowing in the same direction for the common good.”

Why is Denver a great place to live?
“It’s the people and the place. Coloradans have the ‘glass half-full’ philosophy. The people who grew up here know how great it is, and so many others moved here from somewhere else, but they chose Denver, and that makes them happier by nature. The weather is also amazing! Being from Upstate New York where the sun goes into hibernation for a LONG time, I can attest that having that vitamin D on a daily basis here makes a difference. We have a wonderful four-season climate, 300 days of sunshine, outstanding recreational and sporting opportunities, and world-class cultural attractions—all in a city that is easy to navigate and has one of the busiest airports in the nation. We are a destination that is literally only two or three hours from practically anywhere in the U.S., and, we’ve ‘grown up a lot’ as a destination over the years. Everything is really accessible and we have our own version of Disney in our backyard: The Rocky Mountains.”

What should our readers experience if they haven’t already?
“The bucket list should include a concert at Red Rocks; visits to the many unique museums and performing arts venues; watching a sunset from Coors Field during a Rockies game; and brewery-hopping in neighborhoods like LoDo, LoHi, and South Broadway. That is just the beginning. You’ll want to see the murals in RiNo and the Art District on Santa Fe; dine at Larimer Square, Union Station, or at any of the chef-driven restaurants for which Denver has really established a reputation; and, get outdoors in our beautiful parks or bike along more than 800 miles of bike trails. And shopping is a must at Rockmount Ranch Wear, in trendy Cherry Creek, or at the galleries and shops in neighborhoods like Old South Pearl, Highlands, and Tennyson. I also appreciate that we embrace our Western history and rich multicultural heritage at attractions such as Buffalo Bill’s Museum & Grave, the Colorado Railroad Museum, the National Western Stock Show, Museo de las Americas, and the Black American West Museum in the Five Points neighborhood.”

What inspires you?
“Since I graduated college, this is my fourth recession but first pandemic. Each time we have faced tough times, but we have emerged as a better, more resilient city. Getting our economy, our industry, and our jobs back is what inspires me today. Also, my daughters inspire me; they teach me things every day and they have made me prioritize and be sure that I have some sense of balance in my life. I love the fact that when they went off to college in the Midwest, all of their friends said they were moving to Denver when they graduated because it’s a cool, hip city. Lastly, Visit Denver’s people and our mission inspires me. The team of individuals I get to work with each day is amazing, our board is incredible, and ultimately, it’s the people that make the difference in our experiential industry.”