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Aspen cautious about the ski season

Scott Condon
Aspen Correspondent
Vail CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” The Aspen Skiing Co. is taking a cautious approach to the ski season by forecasting a “modest” increase in lift ticket sales, according to Senior Vice President David Perry.

The ski company has budgeted a 1.5 percent increase in ticket sales above last season. The company could exceed that goal at its four ski areas if there is good snow ” and without the vicious, airport-closing snowstorms that punctuated Colorado’s winter last year, Perry said.

Rough weather in the mountains and in Denver, as well as an unusual technical problem that affected new commercial aircraft, canceled 335 flights in the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. That affected about 15,000 travelers ” many of them during major holidays. The company estimates the bad weather wiped out 30,000 potential skier and snowboarder “visits,” or ticket purchases for a full or half-day.

Even so, Aspen Skiing Co. managed to match the prior year’s performance. It logged 1,444,647 visits, just 156 fewer than the winter before.

Preseason business indicators appear strong for this season. “We’re quite optimistic,” said Perry, basing his observations on advance lift sales and group bookings.

The Christmas and New Year’s holiday period is strong as always, and January is shaping up to be solid, according to Perry. His only concern is a short stretch from mid-February through the first week of March. It is “soft” or down from last season, he said.

Fortunately, the ski companyand its marketing partners have plenty of time to react. They will push that period with special promotions and discounts to try to fill beds.

Perry said the six-or-so weeks between Presidents Day weekend and the end of spring break really make or break the season for Aspen. Spring break typically concludes around the end of March.

Over the last decade, the length of prime season has been compressed, he said. It used to stretch through all of February and March.

International business is also shaping up as Aspen’s strong suit. International travelers accounted last winter for 18 percent of the company’s destination customers ” those who include overnight stays in their trips. That was up from 15 percent the prior season.

It’s poised to grow again. The U.S. dollar is weak compared to the currencies of most of the ski company’s top international markets, including Australia, United Kingdom, Germany and even Canada. Traveling to the U.S. has rarely been as affordable for foreign visitors. Conversely, traveling overseas is getting more expensive for U.S. skiers, which may convince them to ski at home.

The credit crisis that is rippling through the U.S. economy hasn’t soured Aspen-Snowmass customers on ski trips, Perry said. There is no sign that spending on ski trips has been reduced.

The ski company also is convinced that the air travel issues that plagued the resort last winter are over. That is critical because Aspen and Snowmass are destination resorts, relying on customers traveling from outside the Roaring Form Valley for overnight trips. About 39 percent of Aspen-Snowmass customers flies into the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport while 11 percent uses the Eagle airport. Another 36 percent flies into Denver and takes ground transportation to the Roaring Fork Valley.

Some of last season’s problems were freak occurrences. Snowstorms paralyzed Denver International Airport at Christmas time, and bad weather also affected flights at other peaks of the season.

Some problems are more controllable. Last winter was the first that SkyWest Airlines operated at the local airport. It handles the majority of United Express flights. SkyWest officials acknowledge they underestimated the challenges of hiring and retaining enough employees at Aspen. They are beefing up their staff this year. The air carrier secured affordable housing that it can offer to about 24 workers this winter.


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