Sputtering economy can’t keep ski industry down | VailDaily.com

Sputtering economy can’t keep ski industry down

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

Janet Urquhart / Aspen Times fileA crowd gathers at the gondola at the base of Aspen Mountain on a snowy February morning. Ski areas in just about every region of the country benefited from a snowy winter, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

ASPEN – Last winter proved that not even a lackluster economy can slow down the U.S. ski industry when resorts receive lots of snow.

The ski industry broke 60 million skier and snowboarder visits for just the second time and logged its second-best season ever, according to a preliminary estimate by the Denver-based National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). Ski areas tallied 60.1 million visits, up 0.6 percent from the 59.8 million visits the season before.

The record of 60.5 million visits was set in 2007-08, before the recession hit. Visits were down 5 percent the following season, said Michael Berry, president of NSAA, but the numbers bounced back each of the last two season.

“All in all, it speaks to the overall strength of the industry,” Berry said.

Ski and rider visits in the Rocky Mountain Region, which includes Colorado, were up 1.7 percent.

The Aspen Skiing Co.’s skier and rider visits were up “slightly” last winter compared to the season before, Skico Senior Vice President David Perry told the Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday. The company hasn’t released the percentage gain yet.

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“Passholders skied more frequently this year, which you would expect,” Perry said, referring to the ample snow that graced the slopes from Thanksgiving to Easter. It was also one of the longest seasons, giving the Skico extra opportunity to add business.

Destination business – from customers taking overnight stays in Aspen and Snowmass Village – was roughly equal to the prior season, Perry said.

On the national front, Berry said “it was snow that determined our success, both positive and negative.”

On the positive side, ski areas in just about every region of the country benefited from a snowy winter. The southeast was the only region with less snowfall than average, according to NSAA. As a result, resorts had a longer operating season than average, either by opening earlier, closing later than scheduled, or both.

But the snowfall in California “was just too much of a good thing,” Berry said. “Epic” snow levels impacted business, particularly since so many storms came on weekends and paralyzed travel, he said.

In addition, warm weather toward the end of the winter nipped the chance for a record-breaking season. Berry said it looked like the East Coast would set a regional record for business going into March, but many ski areas were affected by warm weather.

“La Nina gave and La Nina took,” Berry said, referring to the weather pattern that prevailed during the winter.

NSAA will perform a detailed economic analysis of the season to dig further into business trends. Berry said it is his impression that ski areas didn’t boost numbers by relying on deep discounts on lift tickets and ski lessons. They didn’t have to sacrifice their “yield” to produce strong skier and rider visits, he said.

He said every type of ski area reported a strong season – from mom-and-pop outfits in Indiana to resort destinations in Utah and Colorado. One key factor was older skiers are sticking with the sport.

“The Baby Boomers are staying with us like troopers,” Berry said.

While Aspen and Snowmass depend on Baby Boomers, it was a decidedly younger crowd that gave the resorts their single biggest hotel occupancy boost. Perry said the weekend of the Winter X Games was the busiest of the season – busier than Christmas.

ESPN’s current contract will keep the X Games at Buttermilk through next winter. The Skico is negotiating to keep it longer. If the community as a whole lets the TV sports network know how much the event is appreciated, “I think we have a good chance of keeping them here in 2013 and beyond,” Perry said.

Other tidbits that came out of the meeting between Skico officials and the county commissioners included:

• The Skico pays roughly $6.3 million annually in local property taxes and sales taxes, Perry said. (The amount will vary from year to year with changing property valuations and sales levels.)

• The 10 top markets for Aspen and Snowmass are: New York, Denver and the Front Range, Chicago, Los Angeles, Australia, Miami, Brazil, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. San Francisco is close in 11th.

• The Skico is looking for continued, gradual improvement in business in coming winters. “We’re very bullish on how things are going to go,” Perry said. The company owners, the Crown family of Chicago, are bullish enough that they invested $26 million in three capital improvement projects that are starting this summer: construction of a new high-speed quad chairlift at Tiehack, which will replace two old lifts; a $6 million renovation of the Merry-Go-Round Restaurant at Aspen Highlands; and construction of a new restaurant at Elk Camp, which will cost $13 million over two years.

• Skico intends to submit a Buttermilk Master Plan by August. The plan will outline the company’s vision for the ski area base. It will not include a hotel or residential uses, according to Dave Bellack, Skico senior vice president and general counsel. It focuses on improving facilities for current uses.

• The Skico doesn’t have any insight into the future of Base Village at Snowmass. While it wants to see the ownership issues resolved after financing stalled development, Bellack said there have been improvements with the opening of the Viceroy Hotel, an arrival and transit, and a kids center. “I don’t think it has a significant impact on our guests,” Bellack said about the stalled construction at Base Village.