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Desperately seeking destination skiers

One Sunday in late February, Polly Brown of Boulder got up at 5:30 a.m. and hit the road by 7 a typical beginning, she says, to what turned out to be a very atypical ski day at Vail.She and her boyfriend battled snowy conditions on I-70 but still arrived in Vail just before 9 a.m., only to find both parking structures and South Frontage Road already full of cars. That’s when their nightmare kicked into high gear.After driving around for an hour and a half, with Vail town staff chasing them away from one potential parking spot after another, they wound up several miles away from the slopes and didn’t get on their first chairlift until 11 a.m.”Vail is my favorite place to go of anywhere in Colorado,” Brown says. “I’ve always been a big fan, unlike a lot of people in Boulder because of their own moral issues with the Vail resort company, but now I don’t know what to think, and a lot of it probably has to do with the discount passes.”Call them what you will Buddy Passes, Colorado Passes, discount passes many people in the Vail Valley just call inexpensive season ski passes a curse, blaming them for everything from traffic and parking gridlock to sagging sales tax receipts to an exodus of coveted destination skiers.If Brown never returns to ski at Vail, that’s fine with some local merchants, who claim that Front Range skiers don’t spend a dime in town because they’re so obsessed with getting back on the road and beating I-70 traffic they have no interest in shopping or sitting down to dinner.”My concern is that it’s keeping business out of town,” says Kaye Ferry, owner of the Daily Grind coffee shop on Bridge Street. “They’re getting in the way of people who are trying to spend money.”Ferry, founder of the Vail Chamber and Business Association and an outspoken critic of discount passes and the parking problems they create on weekends, recently suggested limiting the passes to weekdays.”Saturday went from being the best day of the week (for Vail merchants) to being the worst day of the week,” Ferry says. “What could (Vail Resorts) possibly gain from having all this mass confusion and hatred build up each year?”About $35 million a year in advance pass sales at its five ski resorts, according to Vail Resorts Chief Executive Officer Adam Aron, at a time of year (spring and fall) when cash flow used to be virtually non-existent.”We take in too much money from the sale of these passes to be in position to give them up,” Aron says, “and restricting the use of the Colorado Passes on the weekends is like giving them up, because they won’t have any appeal to consumers.”Indeed, the pass wars that began in 1998 when Winter Park fired the first salvo with its “four-pack” shows no sign of an impending dtente.On Monday, March 31, Vail Resorts announced the return of the Buddy Pass unlimited skiing at Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin for $299, and the Colorado Pass, which adds 10 days at Vail or Beaver Creek, for $319. New passes can be purchased in person at various Front Range sporting good stores by May 4, while old passes can be renewed at http://www.snow.com.Making things even more competitive for next season and putting the heat on Vail to keep things cheap, Intrawest-owned Copper Mountain and Intrawest-managed Winter Park are offering the combined Rocky Mountain Super Pass for $319 new or $299 to renew, also through May 4.Addicted to discountsThough initially a reluctant combatant in the pass price wars, Vail Resorts, which now controls about 45 percent of the state’s skier days at its four Colorado resorts, has warmed to the game.”Vail Resorts has figured out that they have a better product to offer the consumer going up against virtually any kind of a marketing strategy,” says former Vail executive Jerry Jones, whose Avon-based development company is building the Grand Elk golf community near Winter Park.The pass price wars will only escalate in the heart of Colorado’s ski country, Jones says, because the competition is so fierce and because Vail Resorts has figured out it can use them to control market share.While Vail Resorts does not release exact sales figures for competitive reasons, Jones says he’s heard that of the 130,000 discount season passes sold on the Front Range last season, 107,000 of them were sold by VR.”If someone could figure out how to charge full price for a season pass and maintain share of market, people would jump out of those programs in a second,” Jones says, because the per-skier-day cash yield has plummeted since 1998.Charles Goeldner, professor emeritus of marketing and tourism at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, has studied the North American ski industry for decades, and he too predicts there’s no end in sight to pass-price wars.”I say it will not end any time soon,” Goeldner says of the discount season passes. “Many (resorts) now feel they have to do it to be competitive, and if Vail doesn’t do it, somebody else will.”Aron says snagging market share in a stagnant pool of skiers nationwide is the key to staying competitive, and the risks of losing that edge have enormous implications for the local economy.”If we as the largest employer in Eagle County didn’t get that $35 million coming in, our financial health would not be great,” Aron says, and he points to several local myths when it comes to assessing the impacts of day skiers.While Vail is still a primarily destination resort (about 65 percent), the advent of the Colorado Pass has definitely clogged South Frontage Road on certain key weekends and holidays. But Aron says Colorado day skier visits are actually down 11 percent this season compared to last.That’s due to a growing category of Colorado overnight skiers who are simply choosing to stay in town rather than fight the traffic on I-70.Through the end of March, there were 135,000 Colorado day skiers (excluding locals) at Vail, compared to 150,000 at the same point last season, Aron says. And there have been 185,000 Colorado overnight skiers, up from 160,000 last season, or a 17 percent increase.”If someone is coming up for a weekend or longer, that consumer should be a great prospect for local lodges, restaurants and stores,” Aron says.He also points to the growing year-round local population (now more than 40,000 in Eagle County) and its westward migration. Those skiers accounted for 200,000 skier days through the end of March, Aron says, and many of them work in increasingly traditional 9-to-5 weekday jobs and need a place to park when they ski at Vail on weekends.”Our goal is to figure out how to accommodate everyone, not try to pick and choose and figure out who gets to ski and who doesn’t,” Aron says.It’s the parking, stupid”It’s a parking problem, not a pass problem,” Aron continues. “There’s a collective realization in the community that the current status quo for guest parking is not great. We don’t think it’s good guest service for people to be parked three quarters of a mile from a lift carrying skis on their shoulders and walking in ski boots.”Even though there have been days this season when more than 1,200 cars have been parked on the frontage road, those instances are rare, says Aron, who counts a total of 17 days this season when Vail had more than 16,000 skiers.Aron claims the more than 5,200-acre mountain and its 33 lifts can easily accommodate twice its current level of about 1.6 million skier days per season, but the parking lags way behind the lift capacity.An additional 600 guest parking spots would solve the problem, he says. But who pays for that parking and how soon it will built are two questions that remain very much up in the air.”Given that Vail is so good at building more ski runs and building a bigger ski area, you would think that they’d be able to build more parking lots,” says Boulder’s Brown.Even Vail merchant Ferry agrees with Aron that more parking would render the question of who’s skiing at Vail and how much they’re spending a moot point.”I don’t care how many of those things (discount passes) they sell as long as they don’t disrupt the lives of the people who live here and try to visit here,” Ferry says.One possible short-term solution is bringing back parking at Ford Park and on the athletic fields, a practice that was discontinued because it was killing the grass.Ferry says the ski company has mentioned a $1 million mat that could be installed to allow parking without impacting the turf, but she says there’s a constituency in town that’s opposed to parking at Ford Park.”You’d think that Christ was born on that spot,” she says, adding that some merchants feel Ford Park parking funnels skiers straight to the Golden Peak base area and away from shops in Vail Village. “If it’s Buddy Pass people who go to Ford Park, I don’t really care.”Aron acknowledges the company is studying Ford Park as a potential parking fix, but says it’s just one of many creative solutions the ski company is exploring with the town because ” Ford Park is going to be a contentious public debate.”The cost of building more parking is enormous, Aron says about $1,000-$3,000 for each surface spot or $25,000-$35,000 for each spot in a structure and one that should not be shouldered entirely by the ski company.”We’re spending about $3 million a year as a company to keep flights coming into Vail each season and we’re not the sole beneficiary, and that’s precisely the clientele that everyone wants to see in the valley, but I don’t see anyone rushing to write us a check,” Aron says.But some Vail merchants argue that because discount ski pass holders almost exclusively benefit Vail Resorts, the ski company should pay to fix the parking problem.”(Selling a discount Front Range pass) doesn’t do anything for my business,” says Ron Weinstein, owner of the Roxy clothing stores in Vail Village, Beaver Creek and Denver’s Cherry Creek Mall. “We used to have strong Friday-though-Sunday business (in Vail), and they’re not necessarily our strongest days anymore.””And if I’m not benefiting from the Buddy Pass skiers, then it is Vail Resorts’ customer, and they should pay for a new parking structure.”The great retail debateJohn Pfalzgraf of Denver, who has both a Colorado Pass and a Rocky Mountain Super Pass (Copper Mountain and Winter Park), skis more than 70 days a season. He has Mondays off and usually winds up staying two or three nights wherever he skis and spending some money in town. But he says he’s an exception to the Front Range skier rule.”I think what (Vail merchants) are saying about Denver people not spending money up here is probably totally correct,” Pfalzgraf says.But CU’s Goeldner says that doesn’t change the reality that discount passes are here to stay and merchants need to adjust to changing market forces.”Even though it puts pressure on the parking and you get skiers who maybe don’t spend as much money in town, it’s better to have those kinds of customers than not to have any customers at all,” Goeldner says.”We’re currently at war with Iraq and wars are never good for tourism, and destination skier are tending to stay at home. Vail has to appeal to the local and the destination skier markets.”Aron says the ski company spent $30 million on marketing this season to attract higher-spending, out-of-state skiers because Vail Resorts sells them more expensive lift tickets and makes more money off them in the ski company’s hotels, restaurants, rental shops and ski schools.Rob, a Colorado Springs day skier who asked that his last name not used for this article, says Vail retailers need to reassess their merchandising based on the ski town’s new dynamic.”I don’t’ think it’s really smart to be selling Rolex watches and Gucci handbags out there on the main drive,” he says. “All of their California clientele are buying all that stuff in California, not in Vail.”Vail has already lost its ritzy mystique. They had it for years, but they no longer have it, and if they think they’re going to get it back, it’s already too late.”So they should be happy with what they’ve got, because it’s better to have 10,000 people walking around and maybe get 50 of them in their store than have a thousand people and get none of them.”But Roxy’s Weinstein says “our focus is on the destination skier. We’ve developed a brand and we know who and what our market is.”Am I going to change my product mix to accommodate the changing demographic? No. They’re coming up for the day and they want to ski and leave.”Weinstein admits it’s a complex issue, with many variables such as war and a lagging economy, but decreasing revenues at his Vail store have paralleled the advent of the Colorado Pass three seasons ago.”I don’t know how you factor in the economy, but when there wasn’t a Buddy Pass and skier number were what they were based on Colorado Cards and destination skiers, our business seemed much more vibrant.”And he adds that it hardly seems fair to destination skiers and second homeowners to have to pay a premium to ski at Vail.A case of discrimination?Talk to a highly sought-after destination skier and they’ll tell you they should be rewarded by Vail Resorts for flying all this way, staying in local lodging and patronizing restaurants and shops.”It’s a little unfair for us to pay for the flight out here and the rooms and the meals and still pay top dollar for lift tickets when the Colorado people can get such a low-priced season lift ticket,” says Neyle Sollee of Knoxville, Tenn., who bought a five-of-eight-day pass for $215 through his local ski club.”I think it would be equitable if you could just buy (discount season passes) through the mail or on the Internet. You’d get more out-of-town people who would come out here and give you more business out here in Vail.”That’s not about to happen, says Aron, who is so sensitive to the issue of destination skiers feeling gouged by discount Colorado season passes that he postponed being interviewed for this article until spring break skiers, many of whom pay the full $71 window price, were out of town.”If the out-of-state ticket was to drop to the price locals are paying, there would be no Vail Mountain for anyone,” Aron says. And he adds that charging a higher rate for destination skiers is not discrimination, a topic of some sensitivity because most ski areas operate on leased public land.”They are not excluded from these deals,” Aron says of out-of-state skiers. “If they want to buy these passes in person in Denver, they are perfectly able to do so.”However, don’t look for the ski company to market that fact, or stop selling discount passes anytime soon.


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