Resorts ready to cut deals so consumers head to slopes in spite of bumpy economy

Snow boarding on the half pipe at the Snowmass Resort.



Like beginning skiers looking down a long, steep, mogul-humped run, resort operators are studying the prospect of the coming ski season with no little trepidation.

Like all snow addicts, they’re hoping for a magnum of champagne powder to flatten out the moguls and give them a long, smooth run.

Failing that, though, they’re looking early to cut deals that will lure people and their wallets to their slopes, hotel rooms and restaurants.

Resorts consider their booking rates proprietary. Most acknowledge that bookings have been slow as a result of a variety of factors, including the high costs of gasoline and air fares that marked the summer travel season and now the looming sense of foreboding about the national economy.

Resorts’ attempts to lure skiers this winter, however, seem to suggest they see even darker clouds on the horizon.

Some of the offerings “are over-the-top scary,” said Debbie Kovalik, executive director of the Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau.

“There is some uncertainty, to be sure,” said Dr. John Loomis, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Colorado State University.

Bookings appear to be lagging behind normal, Loomis said, and that has prompted resorts to abandon many of their usual requirements.

In Colorado, that’s a double-edged sword. Skiing is one of the state’s most important industries, but the state also is made up of skiers.

“There are some amazing opportunities for consumers,” said Dan Sherman of Ski.com, which handles reservations for more than 80 resorts worldwide. “Anybody who’s going to ski this year is going to get a deal. You could shoot up to Aspen, no problem, and get a good deal.”

Given all the economic pressures, most resorts have lowered their expectations for the coming year.

“Will we have a banner year like last year?” said Chris Diamond, president and chief operating officer of the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. “I think probably not.”

High air fares drove off some business early, and many consumers opted to wait and see what would happen.

A subsequent drop in air fares related to lower fuel costs seemed to have sparked new interest, Diamond said.

“Just last week, we noticed an improvement in central reservations,” he said.

It wasn’t enough, though. Intrawest, which owns the Copper Mountain, Steamboat Springs and Winter Park resorts, announced a round of layoffs Wednesday, just as Winter Park opened for the season.

To get people onto the lifts, ski areas are offering a range of deals, Sherman said. “There are generally always early-booking incentives” in which consumers get better deals by making reservations in November or October.

Usually the magic date is Feb. 15, Sherman said.

“I’ve seen some where it’s now Feb. 15,” he said. ‘There are more incentives and more elastic dates. Lastly, you never see deals for the holiday travel period. Some have a minimum stay, and
those are out the window this year.”

Still to be gauged is the effect of the airlines’ efforts to recoup some of their costs, said Loomis.

“Five percent here and 5 percent there” for extra baggage, stowing skis aboard planes and the like, all could take a toll, he said.

Last year, with a weak dollar, Colorado was the cheap place to ski, he said.

A global economic downturn now could hold down the number of Europeans seeking the Colorado ski experience, he said.

Crested Butte is “bucking the trend a little,” spokesman Todd Walton said. “We’re pretty stoked.”

But to do that, the resort has offered lodging packages and even bought airline tickets for fly-in
skiers on a two-for-one basis, he said. Direct air service from Chicago, Salt Lake City, Atlanta and Dallas also has bolstered the resort’s prospects for the season.

Telluride’s season prospects are “looking flat,” but officials are hoping the opening of Revelation Bowl and a new lift to it will help, said Tom Watkinson, public relations and communications manager.

There will be a greater emphasis than usual on regional sales, particularly sales from the Phoenix
market, Watkinson said.

All in all, said Jennifer Rudolph of Colorado Ski County USA, the state association of ski areas, Colorado resorts are hoping for momentum and good snow to carry them through.

“Anyone who skied in Colorado last year had a great time,” Rudolph said.

Early snow such as that seen last year also would help, she said. “It’s been a long time since anyone booked a vacation in Colorado and was disappointed with the snow,” Diamond said.

All the “negativity” of the recent months has held consumers in check, Diamond said.

With airfares down, gas prices down, all the resorts need is something else to drop.

“If it snows,” said Telluride’s Watkinson, “they’re going to come.”


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