Signs point toward strong travel season
By the numbers
37,625: Average daily traffic through the Eisenhower Tunnel in July, 2014.
$2.80: Average per-gallon price of regular gas in Vail as of May 6.
$3.87: Average per-gallon gas price in Vail on May 6, 2014.
11 percent: Estimated year-over-year summer growth in regional lodging revenue.
Sources: Colorado Department of Transportation; AAA Colorado; Destimetrics
EAGLE COUNTY — The price of gas is down from a year ago, and Colorado’s economy ranges from strong to solid. Those and other factors may add up to a record-breaking summer for tourism in the high country.
Actually, summer tourism has had several record years in a row. Destimetrics, a Denver-area tourism consulting company, estimates that summer lodging revenue will be more than 10 percent higher than it was in 2014. If this year’s estimates pan out, then this year will mark the fifth consecutive year of double-digit growth across the region.
Destimetrics principal owner Ralf Garrison said that level of growth is remarkable, but perhaps not sustainable over many more years.
While summer occupancy is increasing, there’s still more supply than demand, so rates haven’t been affected much over the past few years. That’s good news for travelers, since a summer night in Vail costs about half what it does during ski season.
More good news for travelers comes from the price of gas. Prices in Vail are more than $1 per gallon lower than the same period in 2014. Wave Dreher of AAA Colorado said that $1 price difference is about the same around Colorado. Nationwide, the difference is more pronounced, to the tune of $1.20 to $1.30 per gallon.
That price difference doesn’t mean a lot to someone traveling from Denver to Vail — a 250-mile round trip in a car that gets 20 miles per gallon is about $12.50 cheaper than it was last year. Still, that’s a bit more money in drivers’ pockets.
Besides the savings in gas, Garrison said a combination of a solid stock market and recovering home prices are playing a role in summer travel.
“We know those things make consumers feel good,” he said.
Garrison in the past has said that Americans tend to believe in leisure travel as a “birthright,” and that seems to be the case the past few years. And, while most summer guests drive to the Vail Valley, Garrison said more guests to the mountains are the highly valued “destination” guests who tend to stay longer and spend more during their visits.
Some guests have the option of flying to the Vail Valley from Houston, but most still fly into Denver, and then rent vehicles.
As opposed to winter, when most guests spend most of their time either in villages or in the relatively confined boundaries of a ski area, Garrison said summer’s more spread-out nature means resorts rely more on several “magnets” for visitors.
But, Garrison said, a number of smaller magnets can eventually add up to have the same attraction as winter’s handful of attractions. When that happens, ski resorts will become summer destinations in their own right, drawing visitors from any of the same markets that provide winter guests.
That point may come soon.
On the other hand, Rob LeVine, general manager of the Antlers Lodge in Vail, said the past few years have shown similar guest behavior. LeVine said the Antlers has about 60 percent of its budgeted revenue booked now. But, LeVine said, he’s optimistic the rest will come. It always does.
As opposed to winter bookings — or summer reservations at popular national parks — which are often made months in advance, summer travel is often booked with much shorter lead times. LeVine said even a good bit of group business is these days booking just a few weeks in advance. That’s summer’s advantage in winter resorts — plenty of rooms at good prices.
While summer continues to grow, it still lags behind winter, especially in Vail. There, ski season continues to account for about 70 percent of the town’s revenues. In the lodging business, ski season’s share of the annual revenue pie is closer to 80 percent.
LeVine said he hopes that proportion changes some day — but not at the expense of winter, of course. But summer is a different environment.
“The universe of competition is enormous in the summer,” LeVine said. “In the winter, guests have (fewer) options.”
National or world events may intervene, of course. But this summer seems to be shaping up as another building block in a long-running effort for mountain resorts to even out their seasonal business. Garrison said as the winter season’s crowding and ever-higher prices approach their limits, summers become more important.
“There’s a lot of economic benefit to the overall community with a busier summer,” Garrison said. “As we better utilize resources built for summer, there’s a potential for real economic gain.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, email@example.com and @scottnmiller.