Aspen skiing business melting with economy? |

Aspen skiing business melting with economy?

ASPEN, Colorado – Aspen’s preseason bookings have melted in Colorado along with the national economy.

“Booking numbers are definitely down,” said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, a central reservations agency for the two resorts. He wouldn’t discuss specific numbers but said the phones have essentially quit ringing.

As a result, the number of advance reservations made through Stay Aspen Snowmass for the early part of the winter is down compared to the same point last winter. “The entire month of December is looking soft from beginning to end,” Tomcich said.

Stay Aspen Snowmass laid off one worker and reduced the hours of others. Tomcich said he will stay close to fully staffed, though, to be prepared when the situation turns around.

That also is the strategy for other business leaders in the lodging industry and at the Aspen Skiing Co. They said Tuesday they remain confident that consumer confidence will strengthen and people will still take ski trips this winter. They want to be prepared for when business picks up.

“There’s no fire sale,” said Jeff Hanle, Skico director of public relations. The Skico is looking at a mixed bag with its internal business indicators. Pass sales by the earliest deadline were ahead of last season’s pace. Group sales for international travelers were up until the U.S. economy tanked in September and forced Congress to take emergency action. Since then, calls from overseas customers have evaporated, Hanle said.

“We haven’t seen cancellations yet, which is good,” he said.

Reservations at this point from top markets like the United Kingdom and Australia are flat compared to advance reservations at this time last year.

The Skico is taking a business-as-usual approach to international business. Its sales staff is still wooing tour operators and traveling extensively in other countries to court business. That approach paid dividends when people decided to travel the winter after the business slump that followed Sept. 11, 2001.

“We stayed the course after a lot of people pulled back,” Hanle said.

International business has accounted for about 20 percent of Skico’s lift ticket sales in recent seasons.

Tim Clark, president of the Aspen Lodging Association, said many people in the industry aren’t writing off the season. While early December is soft, he said, January looks strong.

“We are cautiously optimistic, indeed,” Clark said.

December’s bookings were the first affected because payments and deposits are due. Travelers still have time to reflect on possible trips later in the ski season.

Earlier this summer and fall, travelers had incentive to book their reservations because uncertainty over fuel prices made air fares such an unknown. People wanted to lock in prices because they feared the cost of flying would continue to soar.

Now the uncertain economic climate is inducing people to wait, Clark said. They are assessing everything from the condition of the economy to prices at the resorts and snow conditions.

“People are booking closer in to the time of arrival,” Clark said. That is why he remains cautiously optimistic for the season. If conditions improve, there is plenty of time for people to book trips. While call volume is down significantly overall, more calls started coming in late last week, Clark said.

Warren Klug, general manager at Aspen Square, said it is impossible for anyone to effectively predict right now how winter business will be in Aspen. He labeled preseason prognostication “dart board economics” because so many unknown factors exist. Aspen Square is one of several Aspen properties that depends heavily on return business. That helps insulate them to some degree from economic downturns. Those customers have already booked their trips and are returning, Klug said.

Overall, bookings were coming in at a good pace and Aspen Square was in line for some “healthy increases” in business up until about two weeks ago. Now the calls have decreased and the potential for the winter is less certain. Klug isn’t expecting a record season but he still believes it could be a solid season, particularly if the Congressional action sparks the economy.

“People are going to wait and see. That’s the big trend right now,” he said.

The economic conditions could be tougher on high-end restaurants, retail shops and businesses that depend more on discretionary spending.

“I believe people will be coming but they will be careful of what they’re spending,” Klug said.

Klug, Clark and Tomcich all agreed that it is too soon to assess business in January, February and March.

“The bottom line is ” and this trumps everything else that I’ve said ” I don’t know,” Tomcich said.

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