Struggling with summer
Vail apparently does not leap into the minds of Americans thinking about summer vacations, as while this mountain resort has a stellar reputation as a winter destination, it lags far behind places like Lake Tahoe, Calif., Lake Placid N.Y., Jackson Hole, Wyo. and Steamboat Springs – all areas with water in their names – on the list of summer hot spots
“We have almost a non-image as a summer destination nationally,” says Beth Slifer, who heads a local marketing campaign that’s been trying to put Vail on the summer travel map.
Vail’s summer image problem is multi-faceted, adds tourism consultant Bill Siegel of Toronto-based Longwoods International. One culprit is most travelers think of Vail solely as a ski resort, Siegel says.
It’s all about water?
Compared to places like Lake Tahoe and Jackson Hole, Siegel says, visitors think summer activities –particularly water sports –are limited in Vail, Siegel says.
“Nationally, you’re way behind all these others,” Siegel says. “Vail is seen as a small place with not enough to see and do.”
Even golf – immensely popular with locals – is not drawing large numbers of visitors to town in the summer, he says.
“Even though you have golf, there’s no national awareness that it’s here,” Siegel says.
A major problem is that, according to Longwood’s survey, Vail is not seen as a friendly place, a factor that may stem from the resort’s upscale image, Siegel says.
“Warm, friendly people – that’s not something I associate with Vail. It’s something I associate with Steamboat and other places,” Siegel says. “(Vail) is a bit … forbidding.”
Bookings up this summer
Following a strange ski season in which skiers hit Vail and Beaver Creek mountains in record numbers but overall business was flat, reservations for the summer actually are up over last year. For example, July bookings made through two agencies, Vail-Beaver Creek Reservations and the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau, were up by 50 percent and 23 percent respectively.
“It’s not hysterically wonderful,” Slifer says. “But we’re definitely upbeat. We think it’s amazing, considering the economy and the war.”
Frank Johnson, president of the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau, says while bookings have jumped by about 18 percent this summer, the typical visit has shortened from three to two days and many hotels have cut their rates.
Bookings, however, are not as clear an indicator of potential business because many Americans are no longer planning their trips weeks ahead of time. As the popularity of planning vacations on the Internet surges, Americans these days are only making reservations a week ahead of time, Slifer says.
“We can’t plan as well; we can’t predict as well,” Slifer says. “But the good thing is people are coming.”
While Vail has traditionally attempted to lure visitors that spend up to a week in town, Americans also are taking shorter vacations, she says.
“We want to capture these short vacations, too,” she says.
A major push this summer is promoting arts and culture in Vail, particularly concerts by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
Siegel l says if the image problems can be fixed, Vail has vast potential to grow as a summer vacation spot. Only 2 percent of Americans surveyed say they have visited Vail in the summer time, Siegel says.
But those who have been to Vail in the summer are highly satisfied, ranking Vail as “superior” to other, more-heavily visited destinations, Siegel says.
Siegel suggests Vail make an even more concerted push to become the upscale, mountain “headquarters” for summer travel.
“The peak of Colorado’
“Literally, this is the peak of Colorado,” he says.
One of the town’s strengths is its restaurants. While dining is mentioned by only 11 percent of the visitors to Colorado, it’s given as a reason for coming by more than half the people who visit Vail.
Siegel says one batch of tourists that isn’t visiting Vail is the RV, or “touring,” crowd, which travels the nation’s highways and is the largest segment of American summer tourists.
Mountains, meanwhile, are the main attraction that lures that touring crowd to Colorado, Siegel says.
“They’re coming to see the Rocky Mountains and they’ll take in all the attractions in the state,” Siegel says. “This is not rocket science.”
Siegel says the problem in the summertime is not with the town or its natural attractions, but with its image.
“Why aren’t (people) coming here? They don’t associate Vail with summer,” Siegel says. “Despite your concerns about your product, all the research I’ve seen says you have a superior product. If Colorado has a great image and a great product, your own research says Vail far exceeds Colorado on the image side.”
Local merchants sweat the small stuff
Using words like “emergency” and “immediately,” a group of local merchants is mobilizing to plug some of the smaller leaks in Vail’s foundering economy.
While million-dollar marketing campaigns have been launched for winter and summer, a new working group comprising business owners and elected officials is taking on projects as seemingly mundane as decorating empty storefronts.
“What do we do on my street? What do we do in my store to overcome the barriers we’re seeing,” Vail Councilman Dick Cleveland said last week.
Cleveland has organized the group and has held two weekly meetings so far for merchants to discuss problems and share ideas.
The group is not presently trying to tackle larger issues, such as commercial rents, traffic congestion on Interstate 70 or the never-ending debate among those who want a serene village and those who encourage vibrant nightlife.
At its first meeting last month, the group identified weaknesses and strengths in the local economy. The last week, one of the topics business owners talked about was how to convince landlords to allow vacant shops to be spruced up.
In the past, says businesswoman Kaye Ferry, some landlords have – for a small fee – allowed other merchants to put retail displays in vacant shops.
“We had some success, but it didn’t last,” Ferry said.
Another idea discussed Thursday was how to provide visitors – particularly the large groups that attend conferences and conventions – with a more “seamless” experience in Vail. The idea is the agencies that book these large groups give visitors ample time to spend money while in town, Cleveland says.
Another suggestion was to put up more visible signs on I-70 to lure people off the freeway and into town. Merchants suggested while Aspen benefits from having U.S. Highway 82 running through the heart of town, I-70 carries potential shoppers past Vail.
Though the economy has also slumped during the past few ski seasons, the discussions have highlighted an economic gulf that essentially splits the resort into two different towns.
Meanwhile, Bill Siegel, a tourism consultant who has done research on Vail for the past two years, said squabbling between various towns and various interests has hobbled marketing efforts.
“The biggest problem you have … is to get your own act together, build consensus and stop fighting with each other,” Siegel said.
Cleveland said he expects the merchants’ group to overcome the infighting of the past and grow into an effective grassroots organization.
“This belongs to the whole community,” Cleveland said.
For more information on Cleveland’s group, call his Town Council voice mail at 479-1860, ext. 3.
Storesfronts in Vail:
– Total retail establishment – 199
– Vacant retail stores – 22
– Total restaurants, bars and groceries – 110
– Vacant restaurant, bars and groceries – 8
– Total vacancies – 30
– source: town of Vail, statistics as of July 15
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.