Riding the gems
Carving out a nicheSub: Colorado’s ‘Gems’ struggle to survive and thrive in the era of the mega-resortBy David O. WilliamsTENNESSEE PASS Step into the cafeteria of Ski Cooper and it’s as if you’ve been transported in time. Your every sense is confronted with a retro vibe that literally throws you back to when you were learning to ski in the first or second grade.A baby is screaming in one corner, a group of seniors dine in another, oblivious. The dcor is early ’70s, there’s the smell of PB&J’s in the air, and the crinkling sound of brown paper bags fills your ears. All that’s lacking is Slim Whitman singing “Una Paloma Blanca” over a set of tinny speakers.”It’s skiing the way it used to be, or the way it was meant to be,” says Ski Cooper marketing director Anne Dougherty.The tiny ski area stop Tennessee Pass between Vail and Leadville epitomizes Colorado’s “Gems,” seven small ski areas that have banded together to carve out a market niche in the era of mega-resorts like Vail, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain.The seven areas including Arapahoe Basin, Loveland, Monarch, Powderhorn, SolVista and Sunlight have limited arsenals with which to battle the big boys for market share. But they can boast free parking, lower prices, less crowding and that laid-back, low-key feel.”It’s the people who come here,” says Yvette Gagnet of New Orleans, a second homeowner in nearby Twin Lakes who tried all of the mega-resorts before settling on Cooper. “You make friends. It’s not like a big resort where you don’t know anyone.”And the Gems are perfect for kids and grandkids, Gagnet says: “You can give them a Walkie Talkie and just let them loose. At a big area, they get on the wrong lift and they’re lost.”It would be tough to get lost in Cooper’s 400 mostly beginner and intermediate acres, an area that would fit comfortably inside of Vail’s latest expansion, Blue Sky Basin.Collectively, the seven Gems encompass 4,192 acres, roughly a thousand fewer than Vail’s total expanse of 5,289 skiable acres. But then there are far fewer folks on the slopes of the Gems.Any weekend warrior from Denver knows that in this day and age of Buddy Passes and Colorado Passes (deeply discounted multi-resort season passes), Vail can see upwards of 20,000 skiers on a peak-season Saturday. That’s nearly a third of Cooper’s annual skier-day tally of around 65,000.Together, the Gems last season had 781,237 total skier days compared to 1,536,024 at Vail. That lack of crowding can be both a curse and a blessing, Cooper’s Dougherty says.The Gems rely largely on lift-ticket sales to survive, with none of the revenue streams like retail, lodging and real estate that larger resorts enjoy. That added cash flow has allowed the Vails and Coppers of the industry to engage in a cutthroat war of discount pass pricing to lure Front Range skiers.”With all the deals (the big areas) have, it’s very difficult to be a small resort and keep yourself in the black,” says Dougherty, who sells season passes for $119 in the early season and $199 thereafter.Compare that to a Vail Resorts’ Colorado Pass, which provides unlimited skiing at Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin and 10 days at Vail or Beaver Creek for $299.That kind of a deal for that many major resorts attracts volume, the kind of numbers that can be a turn-off for some people who fondly remember the solitude and serenity of the sport 30 years ago.”Not to knock the resorts that offer the Front Range passes,” says Rob Perlman, president and CEO of Colorado Ski County USA, the state’s non-profit ski industry lobbying group, “but there’s a segment of the population that’s maybe disillusioned by some of the larger crowds at the larger resorts offering those passes and finds an escape from that atmosphere at the off-the-beaten path resorts.”Perlman should know. He grew up skiing Loveland and recently took his two-and-half-year-old daughter there to learn to ski.Bill Jensen, chief operating officer of Vail and Beaver Creek, spent a good chunk of his career in the ski industry at smaller resorts such as Northstar at Tahoe and Sierra at Tahoe in California and Sunday River in Maine. He says the Gems play a vital role in Colorado’s ski industry, but he doesn’t look at them as the minor leagues, or “feeder” resorts for the big boys.”I believe that for small resorts to be successful they need to carve out what their niche is,” says Jensen. “I think small resorts can be very successful both from a financial standpoint and from and a guest-satisfaction standpoint as long as they don’t try to compete (with the mega-resorts) for a marketing position that doesn’t fit their personality.”When Cooper tried to get a land swap approved a couple of years ago so it could build a small base village with condos and retail, the local community rebelled at the notion.”The community wasn’t really behind it,” says Dougherty, who points out that more than 50 percent of Leadville residents commute to work at mega-resorts in Summit or Eagle counties. “They always look at Vail and Breckenridge and say, “We don’t want to be like that,’ but we’re never going to be like that. We’ll probably stay looking like this for a long time.”Which is not a bad thing, according to the skiers devoted to its friendly confines and placid cruiser runs. Though Cooper boasts 2,500 acres of steep and gnarly snowcat-skiing terrain on Chicago Ridge, its inbound persona is relatively tame.But don’t make the mistake of lumping all the Gems into that category. Loveland, the closest Gem to Denver (just 56 miles west on I-70) sits atop the Continental Divide and has some very challenging runs.And Arapahoe Basin, or “The Legend” to its legions of regulars, is one of the steepest and nastiest mountains in the state though it does have its share of moderate cruisers. Terrain aside, though, all seven Gems share one thing in common that retro, funkified feeling.Robert Adamo of Westminster tried all the big resorts and even purchased a Colorado Pass last season. But he found he kept coming back to A-Basin, which has a marketing agreement with Vail Resorts after the ski company was forced by the Justice Department to spin off that area for anti-trust reasons during its acquisitions binge of the mid-’90s.Adamo says he didn’t like the parking situation at Breckenridge and that he found the staff at Keystone to be “not very hospitable,” so he settled on A-Basin, which reminds him of the small resorts where he learned to ski in the Black Hills of South Dakota.”That was where I got my first taste of skiing,” says Adamo. “It was a throwback, and that’s the way I find A-Basin to be not as crowded, not pretentious, low-key, and I love the parking arrangement.”Ski Country’s Perlman says more and more people are catching the Gems bug. Last season, the organization gave away 6,000 free Gems Cards, which offer discounts of up to $10 off single-day lift ticket prices, and gave out 9,000 this season. That’s all they’ll issue this year, but to sign up for next season, visit Ski Country’s Web site at http://www.coloradoski.com.