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Vail Valley, mountain resort reservations, still soft

Ralf Garrison
Vail, CO, Colorado

DENVER ” The latest Mountain Travel Monitor released by the Mountain Travel Research Program shows that overall market conditions in the Vail Valley and other mountain resorts remained negative in November, which reduced consumer confidence, discretionary spending, and mountain travel booking patterns.

As consumer spending slowed, retail prices began dropping, leisure travel discounts appeared, and the price of ski resort lodging decreased 4.6 percent for November. Data is derived from a survey of 216 property management companies in 15 mountain resorts in the western United States and Canada.

The report shows that downward pricing appears to be attracting hesitant consumers and travelers who saw some decreases in transportation, living expenses, and travel-related costs.



Background

– Consumer confidence is up slightly but remains low ” the Consumer Confidence Index increased 18 percent in November from October’s record low.



According to the index board, “Consumers remain extremely pessimistic and the possibility that economic growth will improve in the first half of 2009 remains highly unlikely.”

– Financial markets remained unstable with little evidence of relief from the federal bailout plans. Stock market fluctuations reflected that uncertainty. Economic news remains grim, as evidenced by the highly publicized bailout plan for the three major American auto makers followed by reports of a $50 billion pyramid scheme perpetuated by former NASDAQ chairman Bernard Madoff.

– Retail spending declined despite brief signs of Thanksgiving retail strength. Even with deep discounting, consumer spending declined, creating a bleak outlook for holiday sales. The subsequent bargains were good news for consumers but businesses, unable to meet profit margins had to cut operational expenses ” including layoffs.



– Unemployment grew with 550,000 layoffs in November and the national figure nears 4 million–the highest number in 26 years.

– Fuel and transportation costs dropped dramatically in November, with oil averaging $45.72 per barrel less than half its cost in December 2007. Gas prices are currently averaging well below $2 per gallon.

This trend benefits consumers with lower travel costs and has contributed to recent cuts in some air fares.

– The U.S. dollar shows has strengthened compared to the 12 major currencies index, increasing slightly in early December to 93.7, its highest level since February 2006. This trend has a negative impact on inbound international travel as the price of a United States vacation increases for international visitors.

– The Travel and Consumer Price Indices declined over the past 30 days and created a “less-bad” situation than in past months for overall consumer spending and travel.

Results

Mountain travelers are reacting to market conditions and changing their historic booking behavior as indicated by booked reservations as of Nov. 30.

– Advanced bookings for the winter season are down 19.5 percent from last year’s pace, and lower from October, which was down 13.3 percent. Reservations taken during November for all future dates are down 25 percent from last November but aren’t as far down as October which was off 33 percent from the previous year.

– Lead time for reservations got dramatically shorter based on observations from various resorts, which reported:

– Long-lead reservations for late February and March slowed as prospective visitors anticipated reduced air and lodging costs.

– Reservations for January and early February show moderate strength but are being offset by cancellations that have occurred when final reservation pre-payment was due ” particularly among international visitors.

– Short-term reservations are strong, and were particularly solid in late November when snow and last-minute deals sparked an increase in visitors.

– Second home owners in resort communities may be increasing personal use as their rental units remain vacant in peak periods. This could boost business at ski areas, restaurants, and shops but does not appear in advance reservation data.

At this point, this season is unlike any other in memory. The final results for this season will depend on several key factors including the economy, amount of snowfall, and the aggressiveness of promotional efforts and programs.

Assessment

A short-lead booking cycle is expected to continue as lodging availability exceeds demand and as consumers continue to delay bookings. Other potential impacts include:

– Transportation relief from lower gas prices. However, myriad factors including fewer airline seats, reduced capacity, airlines struggling to maintain pricing, and many skiers and riders staying closer to home will have an impact on destinations.

Attractive rates and last-minute availability may help generate short-lead bookings, especially if combined with discounted lodging and lift packages.

– Pressure on pricing will continue to increase as past guests remain uncommitted and holiday lodging remains available. Many resorts and lodging properties are shifting marketing efforts to nearby “one-tank” markets. Reduced prices and added-value incentives are likely ” even during peak periods.

– Snow remains the wild card in this economy. Heavy snowfall in Colorado before Thanksgiving boosted visitor numbers but other western regions, until very recently, have had lower than average snowfall and it is uncertain whether it has arrived in time to boost lagging holiday bookings.

Resorts and lodging properties need to remember that it ain’t over ’til it’s over. Businesses that want to weather these turbulent times need to remain up-to-date on changing economic variables and then be flexible in finding ways to take care of their loyal guests.

Ralf Garrison is the founder of the Mountain Travel Research Project. He reports monthly on reservations and economic trends in mountain resorts. To learn more, to to http://www.mtrip.org.


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