Dreaming of a green Christmas | VailDaily.com

Dreaming of a green Christmas

A quick color primer for all the kids out there heading back to school: an orange terror alert mixed with a white Christmas created a great deal of green flowing into Vail Valley cash registers this holiday season.Undaunted by the Office of Homeland Security’s elevated terror risk warning perhaps even bolstered by it and invigorated by a post-Christmas Arctic Express that dumped two feet of snow, huge crowds inundated the valley Dec. 22 Jan. 4, conjuring up visions of prosperous seasons past.”This year was definitely the biggest (holiday period) we’ve ever had even compared to the years prior to us buying the store,” says Bonnie McDonald, co-owner of the Covered Bridge Store in Vail for the last two and a half years. “(The customers ) are buying everything and anything we couldn’t keep enough food in the store.”At Beaver Creek’s Beano’s Cabin, it was the same story: “We were slammed,” says P.M. souse chef Shawn Waters. “Last year was solid, but this year we averaged probably about 75 more dinners a night (325 versus 250).”Such tales are rampant throughout the valley, where bars, lodges, restaurants and retail outlets were packed to capacity for nearly a full two-week period. Anecdotal evidence of economic recovery abounds, though hard data are a bit harder to come buy at this point.Sales tax figures won’t be available for several weeks, although Town of Vail officials acknowledge things were “bustling,” and skier numbers from Colorado Ski Country USA (CSCUSA) won’t be released until Monday, Jan. 12. While privately-held ski companies such as Aspen were busy crowing about the best holiday period since the record 1997-98 season with occupancy rates of 92 percent Christmas week publicly traded Vail Resorts won’t break out its numbers until its next quarterly financial report.Still, CSCUSA officials say statewide figures will compare nicely to last season’s record early numbers (from opening day to Jan. 5) of 2.9 million skier days. “This past week some of the resorts are reporting record snow and record numbers,” says CSCUSA spokeswoman Kristin Rust.Other statistics show business was at least on par or only slightly behind last season’s record early influx of guests, which was spurred by stellar December snow. Vail bus ridership, for instance, was a respectable 254,158 between Dec. 22 and Jan. 4 this season, compared to 281,507 for the same period last season.But the holidays weren’t the problem last season, as they were in 2001 and 2002. Instead, visitor numbers plummeted from January on in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, sparking the first net loss for Vail Resorts in a decade.With the war now in it occupation stages and the stock market rebounding solidly, out-of-state destination skiers (of which the state has lost 1.23 million over the past six seasons, according to a CSCUSA study) appear to be returning in droves. Terror alerts be damned.”In the big schemes of things, Vail’s probably one of the safest places in America to be,” says Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who was passing through town on the campaign trail with his former ski-racer wife, Linda, but did not have time to hit the slopes. “Unless you’re hosting some sort of world-class event, which Vail sometimes does, I would think it would be in the top 10 percent of places to be in terms of safety.”During the first Gulf War in 1991, the safe-haven factor actually held true, with increased skier numbers over the previous season for Vail and the entire state, so the lackluster economy may have had more to do with last year’s precipitous drop-off. With improving consumer confidence comes more discretionary income for luxury items such as ski trips.”Our month of December was as good or better than last year (for the Christiania Lodge in Vail and more than 40 condominium properties nearby), which is a little surprising because the snow was so extraordinary last year,” says lodge owner Paul Johnston. “And all of (this year’s boost) was in spite of the orange alert, so it’s difficult to put your finger on why.”The return of the destination guest is one explanation, says Steve Rosenthal, owner of Colorado Footwear in Vail and Beaver Creek and president of the Vail Chamber and Business Association. “Certainly the pick-up from Dec. 22 on was as good a hit as we’ve had in a long time. Our Mexico City crowd looked like it was back to where it was a few years ago.”Latin American skiers have accounted for as much as 2 percent of Vail’s skier days in past years but had been coming in dwindling numbers the past three seasons due to the global recession.Destination guests are back, confirms Red Lion owner Phil Long, who concedes Front Range day skiers did make the trip over the holidays, especially after New Years, but they knew they would pay a premium.”The destination tourist was definitely the one filling up the town during Christmas week,” says Long. “I’m a proponent of taking the (destination guests) who are paying the most for the experience; their passes have precedence over the mountain (Christmas week), and this week is a sleepier week and now it’s time to take advantage of our Denver clientele, which is a great clientele.”The weather outside turned frightfulWhile the weather Christmas week was relatively mild, things got wild after New Years. A massive moisture-laden front from the Pacific hit town early Friday, Jan. 2, collided with a bone-chilling Arctic Express from the north and conspired to dump two feet of lusciously light champagne powder on Vail and Beaver Creek over the next two days.With New Years Day falling on a Thursday and discounted Front Range Colorado Passes and local merchant passes blacked out for an extended period (through Saturday, Jan. 3), destination guests appear to have stayed a little longer and spent a little more.”From a shopping standpoint no one could ski and they had to do something, so they shopped,” Rosenthal says of fair-weather skiers who were chased off the hill by the big storm. “That helps business. People get a little bed fever and they don’t know what to do, so they just walk around and shop.”But one man’s boon is another man’s bust. Bryan Burns, president of the Vail Valley Jet Center, which handles private aviation at the Eagle County Airport, says the Saturday, Jan. 3 storm-induced closure cost him $267,000 in lost jet-fuel sales.”The hotels and the restaurants and rental cars were the biggest beneficiaries of the snowstorm,” Burns says. “However, the inability for us to get our customer on the ground created an enormous amount of lost sales.” Compensated for partially the following day by the sale of de-icing fluid as snow-encrusted Gulfstreams lined up to get out of town.Overall, commercial enplanement numbers at the airport showed that this December was up significantly over last year’s record pace. Nearly 19,000 passengers came through Eagle County airport in December of 2003, compared to 17,372 in 2002.These numbers are especially encouraging compared to 2001 when only 14,958 came through the airport.Ian Anderson, communications director for the Vail Valley Tourism and Convention Bureau, says he has no specific numbers yet that would back up anecdotal evidence of a strong holiday season, but he does say the phones were ringing of their hooks.”Our reservations center was very busy, and there was a tremendous demand for last-minute reservations,” Anderson says. “We were really slammed on New Years Eve trying to book that night and the weekend, and the town was almost completely sold-out.”Forecasters called last weekend’s storm early on, clearly causing Front Range skiers to chomp at the bit to hit the high country.”Certainly the New Years Eve demand and last weekend’s demand seemed to be more Front Range-based, so that seemed to be more of the storm,” Anderson says.What’s next?So the holidays rocked for the local economy. Great news, but they’re supposed to when you own a business in America’s most popular winter resort destination. (“I’m optimistic, but I’m certainly not going to go out and buy a new house based on the fact we had a halfway decent December,” says Rosenthal.)A sense of economic and political gloom has hung over the past couple of Christmases, and a renewed optimism may have been the biggest factor contributing to this season’s turnaround.”It’s hard to explain, but in the last couple years there hasn’t been this warm, ‘Hey, it’s the holidays we should be with our families and celebrating’ feeling,” says Tyrolean owner Sig Langegger. “It’s almost like Christmas can be and is an obligation Christmas shopping, kids are out of school. And I sense that last year people were doing it out of obligation, not out of the joy.”And this past holiday season, Langegger says he saw far more smiling faces in town. Now the trick is to keep the positive vibes flowing for a full season.”All in all we’re feeling happy-happy,” says Antler’s at Vail general manager Rob LeVine, who predicts his lodge will show about a 17 percent increase over last December, which was very solid for his property. “And unlike last year, it sounds like a lot of our neighbors are in the same boat also feeling pretty good so it’s all encouraging.”Looking into his reservations crystal ball, LeVine says January and February are both looking very strong, but that March is still soft.”It’s starting to pick up, but it’s tracking quite a bit behind last March for us as well as anecdotally from a few of the other people I talk to a on regular basis,” LeVine says. “It will be interesting to see what will happen with March; hopefully, the snow will help us.”Rosenthal also has his eye on the remainder of the season.”I’m just keeping my fingers crossed,” he says. “When you evaluate the season, you evaluate December as the beginning of the season and that makes you feel good, but January, February and March are a huge part of the season, and we still have a long way to go.”Several merchants surveyed by The Trail say the holidays were great, but things were slow earlier in the month of December. They, too, were guardedly optimistic about the rest of the ski season.”Christmas was great, but Christmas is always great, so we can’t judge everything just by six days at Christmas,” Fiesta’s co-owner Debbie Marquez says. “The reality is that not everybody had a great year before those six days at the end of December. The holidays were as busy as ever, but that’s a different thing from the whole year.”

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