Big-name resorts concerned; international market dicey

Even resort areas often considered recession-proof, such as Aspen and Vail, aren’t sure of what this ski season will bring.

In a recent story in the Aspen Times Weekly, Aspen SkiCo Senior Vice President David Perry was quoted as saying, “We’re still battling economic headwinds,” and, “It’s going to be tough to get last year’s numbers.”

The best to be hoped for this year, Perry said, is “a match of last ski season’s business.”

Phone calls to Aspen Ski Company for elaboration were not returned.

Some of that match of last season’s business came earlier this month when Aspen hosted the only U.S. stop for the women’s World Cup ski-racing circuit.

The televised races were thought to have a TV audience of around 10 million viewers, much of that viewer base overseas. Foreign markets accounted last season for 21.5 percent of Aspen’s destination business.

In the Aspen Times story, Perry said the weak U.S. dollar compared to foreign currencies could grow the resort’s destination business by as much as 5 percent this year.

Rob Katz, chairman of Vail Resorts, cautioned it’s too early to forecast destination travel.

“We are seeing two different trends on the international side, I think,” Katz said. “One trend, which is positive, is currency, but the other trend that is negative is that I think you are seeing a lot of our stronger markets also going through an economic shift.”

Winter reservations are up a bit this year while lodging rates have declined, said Ralf Garrison, director of Mountain Travel Research Program. The group tracks lodging occupancy rates in 15 mountain destination communities, representing 22,000 rooms across Colorado, Utah, California, and British Columbia.

“The bad news is that the increase in occupancy is coming at the expense of rate,” Garrison said.

Garrison said November figures showed occupancy was down 11 percent while reservations through Nov. 30 increased 27.9 percent ahead of last year.

However, the six-month outlook is still 3.5 percent behind last year.

“This month’s data offers something for optimists and pessimists,” Garrison said.

The resort business must deal with “the new realities of 2009-2010 and beyond,” Garrison said.

The cost of travel has consumers staying closer to home, he said, and the successful resorts will be those tapping the local drive market.

“We expect to see ski areas continue to benefit from the respective strengths of their nearby markets,” Garrison said.

A weak U.S. dollar invariably leads to more international visitors, but recent economic turmoil in Europe might offset any desires to travel.

However, Colorado Ski Country spokeswoman Jen Rudolph said this year’s London Ski Show attracted many Brits looking forward to a U.S. ski vacation.

“They want to travel. They just hadn’t decided where they wanted to go,” Rudolph said. “But they knew if they came to Colorado they would have a great time. Colorado has an international reputation for consistent snow conditions and great guest services, things that play an important role in ski-travel decisions.”

Still, it may take three to five years for a rebound in the destination travel business, Perry told the Aspen Times.

“Last year’s depressed results are the new norm,” Perry said.


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