Winds of war chill ski industry
The cynical joke at ski-town newspapers is that the front page one day will have an end-of-the-world headline screaming “Powder Day in Vail!” and a tiny teaser in the lower right-hand corner reading “World War III breaks out (see story page 83).”That prediction wasn’t far off in 1995 when the Great Race, a now-defunct drunken party in Lionshead, made it on the same front page with the Oklahoma City bombing.We tend to be a bit isolated here in the Happy Valley, and we’re also quick to freak out about each national crisis and wring our hands over what it will mean for the ski industry and all the businesses that rely on it to survive.Vail Resorts CEO Adam Aron made that direct connection between war and skiing in a Sept. 11 memo to the troops (the ski company’s 12,000 employees) warning them that the winds of war would blow no green this season.He said the company’s budget will be cut by up to 4 percent this coming fiscal year and that management shouldn’t expect bonuses this season. The belt-tightening, he said, is due in part to the possibility of a U.S. invasion of Iraq.”Terrorism. War. Recession. Difficulty in traveling by air. Drought,” Aron wrote in the memo. “Now that is one depressing combination!”But if history is any guide, how much powder falls from the sky will have much more of an impact on how successful a ski season it is than how much powder is delivered through the U.S. Postal Service or launched in Scud missiles.”If we don’t have snow, the economy doesn’t matter, war doesn’t matter; people come if we have snow,” says Kaye Ferry, president of the Vail Chamber and Business Association. “If we are lucky enough to have a monumental snow year, then people will come.”County Commissioner Arn Menconi agrees, adding that Aron’s memo, which was published in a local newspaper but was intended for internal company consumption, was a tad alarmist.”My reaction to his commentary was as if (Federal Reserve Chairman) Alan Greenspan had said the economy could be very terrible in the future ,” Menconi says. “As a commissioner, I’m saying be very conservative, be prudent, but we could have a good snow year “And that would likely take the edge off any overseas conflict, at least fiscally.On Jan. 16, 1991, when Desert Storm was launched by the first President Bush, the ski industry similarly hit the panic button. But the numbers didn’t really warrant the financial fear factor.Statewide skier visits during the 1990-91 season totaled 9,788,487, up .87 percent from the previous season. Then in 1991-92, overall visits came in at 10,427,994, up a dramatic 6.53 percent. Vail was up more than 13,000 skier days in ’90-91 over the previous season. It should be noted that both ski seasons enjoyed above-average snowfall.There was some justification for nervousness. Passenger enplanements were up at the Eagle County Airport in 1991, but sales taxes revenues for the county were down 10 percent. That decline, though, may have had more to do with the last sustained recession the country has experienced before the current one, which officially began in the spring of 2000.Vail chief operating officer Bill Jensen says the last conflict with Iraq had even less of an effect on skier days in the East. At the time, Jensen was head of marketing for Sunday River, Maine, where skier visits jumped 14 percent from the previous season. But he adds there was a definite hiccup in late January.”When the war started, there was a pause in New England that lasted about 10 or 12 days, where people were fascinated by what they were seeing on CNN and needed to stay close to home to see what the ramifications would be,” Jensen says. “And I think the same thing will happen to us this season if we go to war in January.”But during the last Gulf War, industry experts say the dip in international skier traffic was more than made up for by the increase in domestic and drive-time skiers who wanted to stay close to home and vacation in the relative safety of an alpine resort.”We probably worry more about the air carriers in the event of a war, the increase of fuel prices and those ramifications on an industry that you can only describe as severely weakened right now,” Jensen says.In fact, in his memo Aron warned of the possibility of a bankruptcy filing this fall by United Airlines, one of the key carriers into the Eagle County Airport and Denver International.But Aron tried to put a positive spin on his gloomy forecast, offering this on the threat of war: “Of course, always the optimist, I think things just might work out. There has not been another successful major terrorist incident in a year. Successful diplomacy certainly could and usually does avert war “
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Vail’s updated plans regarding the state guidelines and isolation housing requirements is one of several pieces of information guests are waiting on heading into the 2020-21 season.