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Conferences big deal after ski season

Scott N. Miller

JACKSON, Wyo. ” Conferences are big business for resorts.

Some communities, including Telluride and Monterey, Calif., have conference centers built with tax money. Other communities have been content to let hotels provide space for big groups.

Jackson, Wyo., and Park City, Utah depend on private enterprise for their conference business. The biggest facilities in both towns are in resort hotels. Neither town has any plans now to even talk about a public center.



“That just wouldn’t happen here,” said Kelly Barbello of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. “Whenever anything’s going to be built here, it’s very controversial.”

In fact, voters in Jackson a few years ago said “no” to a proposal to keep imposing a tax on rented hotel rooms. The vote effectively killed the town’s resort and visitor’s bureau, so there’s no central reservations system for Jackson and the surrounding area.

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“It’s kind of frustrating from our perspective,” Barbello said. “But that’s the way things are.”

But the business still comes.

The Snow King Resort, the largest lodge in Jackson, brings in plenty of conference business, some in the winter, but most in the summer. The summer is when the big groups come, since the Snow King uses its 20,000-square-foot indoor ice rink for warm-weather events.



“Probably 65 percent of our overall business is conferences,” Snow King General Manager Dana Ahrensberg said. “If somebody wants to come in and use 1,500 square feet of the (rink), we’ll do it.”

Throughout town, conference business is “pretty important,” Barbella said. “It really benefits the caterers and people like that.”

Conferences, also help promote the ski resort, Barbella said.

And there seems to be quite a bit of interest in space for summer meetings, despite the fact that Jackson, tucked away in the northwest corner of Wyoming, is hard to get to, at least compared to Vail.

Different, but the same

The story is a little different in Park City.

With the heart of the resort less than an hour’s drive from the airport in Salt Lake City, Park City is one of the nation’s most accessible mountain resorts. That means the place is busy, especially in the summer.

“You’d really have to come here and see it to understand how much goes on here in the summer,” said Dan O’Connor, a sales manager for the Grand Summit Resort Hotel and Conference Center.

The summer business is especially important for a place like the Grand Summit, O’Connor said. While more people come in the winter, a ski resort’s overhead is higher then, too.

“The summer business really helps the bottom line,” he said.

As in Jackson, there’s little public sentiment in Park City to get local government involved in the challenges of the conference business.

In Park City, though, that decision came after a lot of homework.

“We’ve looked at public space a couple of times, in 2003 and 1994,” said Bill Malone, Director of the Park City Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.

“In 2003 the research had us looking at operating losses of $700,000 to $900,000 per year on a 45,000-square-foot center,” Malone said. “We looked at it and said… that’s not something we wanted to re-direct money for marketing to.”

No winter discounts

Business owners and residents in Park City have done much of the same homework Vail’s Conference Center Advisory Committee has done over the past couple of years.

“It seems like a lot of communities give away conference space,” Malone said. Combine Park City’s seasonal economy with the fact that groups are looking for discounts on everything from morning snacks to hotel rooms, the bottom line just didn’t make sense, Malone said.

“Nobody’s going to discount rooms in the winter, so you’ve got to take May through October,” he said.

So far, letting private enterprise handle the group business seems to be working.

“Some business gets turned away in the peak seasons,” O’Connor said. “But we stay pretty busy.”

Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 613, or smiller@vaildaily.com.

Vail Daily, Vail Colorado


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