Vail Daily column: Summer season: Our worst kept secret
A year has four seasons … are we positioned for guests no matter what time of year it is? Mountain destinations have to determine how to maintain a balance of business throughout the year, which is critical to the sustainability of our resorts, lodging partners and services such as restaurants, shopping and activities. This was the introduction into a breakout discussion at last month’s Mountain Travel Symposium, an annual conference for the (ahem) mountain travel industry, which was held last month.
It’s an interesting topic of discussion as mountain communities, including the Vail Valley, continue to focus efforts around building a year-round tourism economy (for discussion, our realistic definition of year-round is probably 10 months).
‘I stayed for the Summer’
It wasn’t long ago that the summer season was the best-kept secret in Colorado’s mountain region (including here in the Vail Valley). You might have seen recent reports showing our summer visitation has doubled in the past 10 years, leading one to believe that our summer season might in fact be our worst kept secret. “I came for the winter, but I stayed for the summer” is a common refrain among mountain locals, and our visitors are starting to learn why we are known to repeat this to our friends and family around the country.
Indeed, our summer season has extended from the historic kick-off on the Fourth of July weekend to Memorial Day weekend with Blues, Brews & BBQ in Beaver Creek followed by the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail the first weekend in June. The in-town events and on-mountain activities are available to enjoy through September. September has grown to the point that our lodging occupancy is higher then than in April or even December.
Lodging occupancies only tell part of the story; the other part of the equation is the money spent (be it retail, restaurant, activities or lodging) and the impacts of this on retail sales tax collections. Despite our net visitation growth, our summer season still only makes up about 30 percent of our annual sales tax receipts and lodging occupancy still lags well being the winter season. The challenge presented to our business community by seasonality remains real.
This variance is easily explained by the fact that our non-ski lodging rates, on average, are 43 percent of our ski season lodging rates. Retailers and restaurateurs would likely nod their head in agreement that the average transaction is smaller in the summer months, even as total transactions are increasing at a higher rate than winter.
Creating a year-round (again, probably 10 months in our case) tourism economy and closing the gap between the winter and summer seasons remain a noble goal for our tourism industry. In addition to the occupancy and rate issues outlined above, we have additional challenges to creating a true year-round model.
Year-Round Model Challenges
A sampling of these challenges:
• Bed base: The proverbial church is built for Easter Sunday. Our bed base is built to accommodate the high-demand times (Christmas/New Year’s, President’s week, Spring Break, July 4), and we are fortunate to fill these high demand times throughout the valley. However, that leaves us approximately 47 weeks of the year where our supply is higher than our demand, especially mid-week leading to …
• Weekend demand: Weekends (Friday and Saturday night) during peak summer and winter seasons almost always reach or exceed 85-90 percent occupancy yet mid-week occupancies tend to lag, more in the summer than in the winter. This leads to challenges related to …
• Access: Interstate 70 is in many ways our best friend (providing access to our Front Range visitors and homeowners) and our worst enemy (due to traffic congestion during peak travel times and the resulting impacts on the guest experience). The guest experience on I-70 elevates the importance of …
• Air service: Enplanements to/from the Eagle County Airport have stabilized during the past three years but are still down about 30 percent from the peak in 2007. Research shows visitors accessing our community through EGE tend to stay longer and spend more, making increased air service a strategic priority.
Where there are challenges, there are also opportunities. The increased focus on using special events and participatory sporting programs to drive visitation have proven successful and help increase occupancies and drive sales tax collections. Groups and meetings remain a priority for the Partnership as well as the lodging community and municipal partners as they help fill mid-week lodging gaps. Weddings remain a huge business opportunity for a variety of professional service businesses (florists, caterers, photographers) as well as venues. Epic Discovery and the new activities coming to Vail Mountain also will help us moving forward and is sure to provide an enhanced guest experience.
The challenges presented by seasonality are very real to our business community and the overall economic health of our community. Fortunately, we’re a resilient community and we’re up to the challenge of increasing our non-ski business to close the gap with the winter months.
Chris Romer is president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership.