Beaver Creek’s time to shine |

Beaver Creek’s time to shine

BIZ MtnTravSym 03 TS 04-07-08

BEAVER CREEK, Colorado – The world was a lot different the last time the Mountain Travel Symposium came to the valley.

The symposium, an annual convention that brings together buyers and sellers of rooms and travel packages, came to the Vail Cascade Resort in 2008. There were signs the world’s economy might be headed for trouble, but the September financial crisis was still months away, and business was brisk. The 2008 symposium was the high-water year for the event, with more than 900 paying customers.

This year’s event is at Gerald Ford Hall in Beaver Creek, and, after a couple of down years, the number of paying customers is back up to the levels seen in Vail in 2008.

“They aren’t paying what the people paid in 2008, but the numbers are back up,” event co-founder Mike Pierson said.

But, like everything else in the travel industry, having the numbers back up is a good sign.

“I’ve never swum upstream so fast and never gotten anywhere – and that’s fine,” Pierson said.

Pierson, who owns an events and marketing company in Southern California, founded the symposium with Ralf Garrison when both were working at Crested Butte in the early 1980s. And, like any number of other ski-business traditions, the symposium started over beers at the end of a powder day.

Before the 2008 event, Garrison recalled how the first symposium was started to both talk about next season’s business, and as a semi-jealous response to an end-of-season party thrown by the ski patrol. The symposium – the word’s original definition includes drinking and intellectual conversation – grew over the decades, to the point where the founders were talking about capping attendance after the 2008 event in Vail.

Staying afloat

Once the world’s economy nosedived, thoughts of capping attendance were quickly replaced by strategies to just keep the event in business.

The 2009 event was held at Keystone. It was a fortunate coincidence, Pierson said.

“Our numbers dropped to less than we’d seen in 2004,” Pierson said. Having the symposium in a place set up for meetings, and so close to air connections in Denver, was an event-saver, he said. So was a hastily conceived marketing plan that cut prices to keep people coming. Last year’s event, in Banff, Canada, was also pretty low-key.

“Ralf and I were talking recently about the differences between 2008 and 2011,” Pierson said. “The industry has had to adapt and evolve.”

The companies that have evolved are the ones still standing, he said.

The drop-off in the resort business led to Beaver Creek submitting a bid for this year, something that had never happened before. And, Pierson said, he’s happy to hold the event here.

“Beaver Creek’s very centrally located, we got great rates and we have the Vilar Center for the general sessions,” Pierson said.

Happy hosts

While the symposium is happy to be in Beaver Creek, Chris Romer said the valley should be happy to host the event, too.

“You’ve got every ski resort and vacation trade influencer in your resort for the next four to six days,” said Romer, executive director of the Vail Valley Partnership, the valley’s main convention and tourism group. “The buying power of these trip planners is tremendous – it’s a great opportunity for Beaver Creek to show off its customer service and the village.”

Most of us won’t see the “trade exchanges” – sessions that are like speed-dating for people offering and booking rooms – but Romer said the collective influence of the people attending “can’t be overstated.”

And the people attending the symposium will also have the opportunity to learn about new trends and developments in the tourism business at the workshops.

Speakers include Aron Ralston of “127 Hours” fame, as well as industry insiders including Terry Jones, founder of Kayak and Travelocity. Jones and other speakers are sure to talk about the continuing influence of social media on the travel business.

Pierson said social media has become so important that agencies are devoting more money and manpower than ever to keeping up with Facebook, Twitter and other outlets.

Of course, the main question asked by everyone in the travel business is, “when will we get back to normal?” Those people might not want to hear Pierson’s answer.

“The ‘new normal’ might just be ‘normal,'” he said.

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