VAIL, Colorado - A slow start to winter and a so-called snow hangover from last season have left many local lodging managers wondering how this winter will pan out.
The snow hangover was great last winter because people remembered the record-breaking winter the year before. That helped lodges get through one of the driest winters in history during the 2011-12 season, but the consequences are starting to show up now - ski vacations are often booked based on memories of the previous season.
At the Manor Vail Lodge, Sales and Marketing Director Nicole Whitaker said last year's reservations for December were locked in early for that very reason - memories of a snowy 2010-11 season. Now, she's seeing a slower booking pace for next month, which she suspects could be a result of the bad snow memories from the 2011-12 season.
"December is down. We're a little concerned about snow, but we know it will come," Whitaker said. "Our first quarter is looking strong, from January to March."
Whitaker said the Manor Vail is making sure guests will have plenty to do once they're in town as a way to give people reasons other than just the snow to come to Vail. She said the hotel will have 50 ways to celebrate the 50th anniversary - things such as a crazy Christmas sweater party, a snowman-building competition and live entertainment in the hotel's bars.
Rob LeVine, general manager at the Antlers at Vail in Lionshead, is also seeing a slower booking pace for December this year. He said the lodge has 70 percent of its December budget on the books, versus 90 percent on the books by this time last year.
The Antlers' season as a whole, however, looks fine, with about 67 percent of the total winter budgeted income already on the books, which is in line with the numbers on the books in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Last year, the Antlers had 73 percent on the books, but that was coming off the huge 2010-11 snow year, LeVine said.
"Obviously, we are still (and always will be) snow farmers. So far this year, the crop is weak," LeVine said via email to the Vail Daily. "Happily, unlike traditional farming, that can change overnight. I do believe that if we get several good storms in the next two to three weeks, we could still salvage a decent December."
Meteorologist Joel Gratz said that's true - that a few storms and continuous cold weather could turn things around. Gratz runs opensnow.com, a site that forecasts powder days at ski resorts. He said the rest of the month is expected to be dry, but there's hope for snow in early December.
Gratz said people have been emailing him asking whether they should cancel their December vacations. Gratz tells people it just depends on what you're looking for. Folks looking for a nice mountain vacation can still enjoy the outdoors and mountain villages, but powder hounds might be disappointed if things don't change soon.
LeVine said folks booking December vacations who are choosing beach destinations or cruises work against local hotels. But the good news is that if tons of snow starts falling and people want to start booking trips, there will be availability, he said.
"Working for us is that in previous years, we were already full at this time and turning away business for much of December," LeVine said. "This year, if they call, we'll have the availability they want. In other words, we do have the ability to catch up, but snowfall is going to play a big part in whether that happens."
Vail Mountain Lodge General Manager Frank Johnson said he last ran his hotel's numbers Nov. 15 and the outlook was positive.
"We were looking at having a good December. I think if it doesn't snow, of course, people may reconsider that and may try to cancel," Johnson said. "We had some people who canceled this weekend (because of snow conditions). That's the way that goes."
Johnson said when he ran the numbers, the booking pace for early December reservations was about even with last year. But from Dec. 22 on, he said the Vail Mountain Lodge is "considerably ahead of last year."
"I think because the last couple of years haven't been very good, either because of the weather or the economy, we're seeing some pent-up demand," Johnson said. "All bets will be off if it doesn't snow."
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or email@example.com.