Ski company wants financial help with flights
Following a trend occurring broadly across resorts of the West, Vail Resorts wants to spread the cost of sponsoring direct flights to the valley.”If the community wants to have service into Eagle County grow again, it needs to expect to put its money where its mouth is, and plan for guaranteed contracts with airlines to grow service,” says Chris Jarnot, vice president of sales and marketing for Vail Resorts.In the past, Vail Resorts has exposed itself to as much as $10 million in risk, meaning that if nobody flew on any of the planes in question, that’s how much the company would pay. Some years the company paid up to $1 million per winter.But risks elevated after terrorist attacks in 2001 dampened the travel industry. For the ’02-’03 winter, Vail Resorts paid out nearly $2 million. For the immediate past winter of ’03-’04, the company expects to pay $1.3 million to $1.5 million.The ski company has sometimes been coy about its sponsorship of the flights, but Jarnot says with this decision to pass the hat, company officials have begun sharing information about the flights with various local groups – hoteliers in Vail and Beaver Creek, for instance.
Plane dealingSuch community funding for winter flights has become business as usual at several resort valleys in the West, including Telluride, Crested Butte and Jackson Hole. First to adopt this community-based funding strategy was Steamboat Springs, about 10 years ago. There, the ski company posts about 60 percent of the guarantees, and the community about 40 percent for a flight program that during the last two winters variously cost $1.7 million and $2.3 million.Of the total, the city of Steamboat Springs pays $90,000 to $100,000. Meanwhile, the 800 members of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association contribute $650,000 to $850,000. The quid pro quo for contributors is access to lower-priced merchant ski passes for employees.Although these voluntary contributions seem to have worked fairly well, a committee in Steamboat is now at work in hopes of securing dedicated, permanent funding. One tentative idea is to increase the lodging tax to 3 percent; it is now at 1 percent. It would generate $1.25 million annually.In Crested Butte, taxes have been levied during the last two years for flight programs. Driving the tax was an announcement by the then-faltering ski company that it was, after almost two decades of being the sole provider, withdrawing much of its funding. The sales tax increases approved by voters in Gunnison County is more heavily weighted on Crested Butte and Mount Crested Butte businesses than the rest of the county.That same essential model was approved last fall by voters in the Telluride area, with heavier taxes in Telluride and the slope-side town of Mountain Village. Montrose has also voluntarily chipped into the program. The airport is located in Montrose, 65 miles from Telluride.
Crème de la crèmeEagle County Regional Airport is the portal for about 40 percent of the out-of-state skiing visitors to the resorts of Vail and Beaver Creek, but Denver International accounts for 60 percent – a ratio that has changed little since the mid-1990s.This statistic alone fails to reflect the economic impact of Eagle County Regional to Vail Resorts in particular or the resort economy more broadly. Skiing remains the powerhouse of the valley’s economy, and the out-of-state guests are the heavyweights within that economy. And those arriving by way of Eagle County airport are the crème de la crème of the destination visitors. They stay longer, spend more money, and return more frequently.What if there wasn’t an airport in Eagle County? Certainly, many would come to Eagle County by way of Denver, says Jarnot. But when asked what level of influence the airport played in their decision in choosing Vail or Aspen-area resorts, 49 percent of airport users polled last winter said “high or very high”.What that answer means in terms of money is still being worked on by researchers on behalf of Vail Resorts, which commissioned the study.