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Vail Valley businesses look ahead

Scott N. Millersmiller@vaildaily.comVail, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail Daily file photoVail Valley Business: Kris Wittenberg, center, owner of SayNoMore! Promotions marketing company in Eagle stands with members of her company team, husband, August Wittenberg, right, and Jennifer Bliss, left, in their office surrounded by marketing products they supply to companies for promotional purposes.
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VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – Anybody can look into a crystal ball. But what are people in the real world watching as they wait for the national and regional economic slumps to ease?Kris and August Wittenberg are voracious readers of the Wall Street Journal and other business publications. But the Wittenbergs, who own two Eagle-based businesses – SayNoMore! Promotions and Be Good To People – cast a wider net in their search for information that could help their businesses.”I spend a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter – you can learn so much from what’s going on those groups,” Kris Wittenberg said. Since SayNoMore! specializes in providing promotional products to businesses – everything from notepads to jackets and more – the Wittenbergs are also closely following the national health care reform bills as they work through Congress. One provision of one bill would require doctors who receive pretty much anything – including notepads and pens – from a vendor to maintain records of those gifts.That could have a big, damaging effect on SayNoMore!, Wittenberg said. But moving into the new year, Wittenberg also said she’s seeing a little more willingness to spend, from both corporate buyers and the people buying Be Good To People hats and shirts.”I’m pretty optimistic about 2010 from the blogs and news reports I’m reading,” she said.Ralf Garrison is one of the directors of the Mountain Travel Research Program, a Denver-based consulting company that evaluates travel trends to mountain resorts. Garrison’s company watches several sources of information, from reservations reports at individual resorts to national consumer confidence numbers.Those numbers – based on surveys of spending habits and other information – are starting to rebound after spending much of 2009 on a downward slide.”It’s been stuck under 50 for a while, and the number was originally set at 100,” Garrison said. “I think we need to see the number at 75 or more before we’re going to see consumers really willing to spend.”But, Garrison added, the consumer confidence number was in the 40s for much of this year.”I think there’s more strength for the future, and less for the present,” he said.

Garrison’s company also tracks the stock markets. He’d like to see less speculation – which can lead to the kinds of wild swings of the past few years – and more stability.He’s also looking at room rates, trying to track when, or if, there’s a change coming in how much lodges charge for a night’s stay.For much of the last year, lodges have depended on discounts to drive occupancy. When occupancy starts to come up and stabilize, those lodges may then have the power to raise rates, which affects both company bottom lines and local tax revenue.At that point, business will start growing again.”Until then, they’re going to have to generate revenue with cost controls,” he said. This March will be a big indicator of whether the resort business is ready to start to grow again, he added.Another part of the resort business, at least in the Vail Valley, involves real estate.Chuck Madison, a partner in East West Partners, said his company is watching consumer confidence, of course. But East West Partners is also looking at the number of vacation homes on the market.”The inventory is declining right now and that’s a positive trend,” Madison said. But to really drive sales, Madison said, banks need to start lending again. That’s starting to happen, if slowly, he said.

Lending is going to be key to getting the locals’ housing market moving, too.”We’re seeing a lot of people ready to move up from, say, a condo to a townhome, but they can’t get financed,” said Don Cohen of the Economic Council of Eagle County, a county government-funded project that tracks housing, employment and other trends.Cohen’s office also runs the Eagle County Home Store, which pulls together information on affordable housing programs across the county.”We need to see people able to get (mortgages) for 5 or 10 percent down, and not 20,” Cohen said. Cohen’s office is also looking at employment trends, so people can afford to buy homes.”I’m going to be interested in full-time jobs numbers,” Cohen said, adding that his office will also be looking at employment that might show the local real estate and construction industry may be ready to start moving again. That would include hiring by architectural and engineering companies, the firms that do the work before construction companies move in.But, Cohen said, he doesn’t expect to see much of that hiring through much of 2010. On the other hand, Madison said East West Partners will probably start design work in 2010 on three new buildings of condos still planned for the Westin Riverwalk Resort & Spa project.But who will buy the units any developer builds?Cohen believes even after a recovery, the local construction industry will still be much smaller than it was during the boom days of a few years ago. That’s why he’s looking for trends that could create a “health and wellness” sector of the local economy.But that’s farther down the road. Watching trends in 2010 may not bear fruit until 2011 and beyond.Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.


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