As ski season nears its end, business steady if unspectacular

It’s that time of year when skiers check snow conditions and resort closing dates with equal interest.

Colorado’s been blessed the past week with a foot or more of new snowfall in the mountains and spring-like weather at lower elevations.

Blessed, that is, if you live at lower elevations.

Spring means the end of ski season, and the lure of biking, hiking and gardening turns many a ski resort into a ghost town no matter how good the snow conditions are.

This year, with many resorts already into their final month of the season, most Colorado ski resorts say they are holding up well in terms of skier visits.

Some of that can be traced back to last winter’s bountiful snow.

“Skiers follow the snow,” said Ari Stiller-Shulman, public policy manager for the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA. “And a lot of skiers don’t look at skiing as a luxury but as more of a necessity.”

A tally of skier visits for the 2008-09 season shows visits at CSCUSA resorts are down 5.9 percent compared with the same time last season, but down less than 4 percent
compared to the past five years, including some record-setting years.

“Visitation so far this season speaks to Colorado’s worldwide reputation as the best place to ski,” said Melanie Mills, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA. “Skiing is falling on the ‘necessity’ side of the ledger for most participants, who may be economizing in many areas of their lives but not when it comes to ski days.”

Skiing long was considered a recession-proof industry, but the depth of the current recession has affected Colorado’s top tourism draw.

Most areas are responding by cutting expenses.

Vail Resorts, in one example, recently announced companywide salary reductions of 2.5 to 10 percent. This should result in a $10 million savings without massive layoffs, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz said.

“We have chosen to address this situation by making the preservation of jobs and protecting the guest experience our highest priorities,” Katz said.

Telluride budgeted carefully this year and is benefiting with some positive numbers in a slow year, resort spokesman Tom Watkinson said.

“Our numbers are down a bit from last year’s records, but we’re above what we budgeted for,” Watkinson said. “We obviously budgeted tightly, not knowing what the economy was going to do, but opening Revelation Bowl and a new lift helped without a doubt.”

In an attempt to boost skier numbers for the final weeks, many resorts are offering discounts on lodging and lift tickets, including lift tickets for next year.

Crested Butte is selling 2009-10 season passes for the 2008-09 amount, and Vail is holding the line on its $579 Epic Pass, which includes unlimited access to Vail Resorts’ six mountains.

“There are a lot of deals going on right now,” Stiller-Shulman agreed. “Winter Park has a $49 lift ticket and lesson special, so skiers can find bargains just about anywhere.”

Closing dates are set well in advance of the season, but they still seem to catch skiers by surprise.

What isn’t happening is resorts closing early, Stiller-Shulman said.

“We haven’t heard of any closing early,” he said. “There’s still a lot of snow in the high country, and there are lot of deals and events going on as well.”

Powderhorn Resort will close March 29.

Crested Butte and Telluride shut down April 5. Other closing dates can be found on the Colorado Ski Country USA Web site, http://www.coloradoski.com.


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