Vail Valley summer travel bouncing back |

Vail Valley summer travel bouncing back

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – In 2008, gas prices kept many summer travelers out of the mountains. In 2009, the whole economy had fallen off a cliff, so who was going to travel? This year, there are encouraging signs.

Summer tourists seem to be coming back to the Vail Valley this year, and those travelers run the gamut, from business groups to tournament-followers to people just looking for a good value on a mountain getaway.

Based on early reservations, the Eagle County Regional Airport may set a new record for summer passengers. New events are drawing participants. And, most important, there’s finally some strength in lodging rates.

“But we’re extremely vulnerable,” said Ralf Garrison of the Mountain Travel Research Project. In a recent column for the Vail Daily, Garrison noted everything from unrest in Jamaica to the Icelandic volcano to the Greek financial meltdown as natural and man-caused events that can throw a big stick into the travel industry’s machinery.

With all that, though, Garrison’s company is seeing good things in the industry. It’s hard to pin down specific reasons, but Garrison said they could range from “frugality fatigue” on the part of Baby Boomers, who think vacation travel is a birthright, to the deals mountain resorts offer in the summer, to some sort of takeoff on a recent Harley-Davidson ad slogan – “Screw it – let’s ride.”

Whatever the reasons, people are coming back. But, while rates are starting to firm up in Garrison’s research, Tony O’Rourke of the Beaver Creek Resort Company said people are still looking for deals.

“It’s the first thing people say,” O’Rourke said.

The good news is that even with stronger rates, people can still book summer lodging for much, much less than they can in the winter.

The Vail Valley Partnership’s “Vail on Sale” Internet site provides relatively last-minute lodging deals across the valley. Partnership director Chris Romer said activity on that site is about even with last year. However, the Partnership’s other booking sites are seeing significantly more use than last year. Still, Romer said summer travelers traditionally book closer to their travel dates than they do in the winter, and that isn’t changing.

Some of the jump in business is coming from groups. While big Wall Street companies still aren’t booking meetings anyplace that sounds even remotely exotic or expensive, other groups are returning.

“We’re recruiting more spring, summer and fall groups,” Romer said. “And we’re having success.”

In addition to the usual weekend sports tournaments, this summer will bring a new soul music festival, as well as a “firefighters combat challenge” that will eventually end up on ESPN.

With people coming, the next hurdle is to get them to spend money on something besides lodging.

“Disposable income is where we saw the big drop,” O’Rourke said. “Now that people are coming, we hope they start spending at a little higher level.”

The people who do much of that spending, though, are generally the people who fly in to spend a week in the mountains.

That’s why the Eagle County Air Alliance, of which O’Rourke is a member, is working to find a way to get a customs station at the airport terminal.

“The international guests’ vacation stays are longer and they spend more money,” O’Rourke said.

But international flights may be a few years down the road. And this summer’s glimmers of good news may not last. Still, any news is good news these days. And, Garrison said, if the current trends start to stick, there may be better news on the horizon.

“This isn’t the foundation of confidence we need,” Garrison said of the early numbers. “We need to provide out over the summer. But we’re hoping to see signs for the coming winter.”

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or

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