Holidays buoy resorts in downhill economy

Ski resorts might be the first to be affected by the economic slump as purse strings tighten and family budgets, especially the line that says “discretionary income,” wither.

But recent news from ski resorts aren’t the death knells one might expect in this time of the incredible shrinking budget.

As expected, skier visits across the state are down compared to last year at this time, but revenue is stable and sometimes up, thanks to a holiday surge and great deals that have visitors staying longer, buying more and perhaps hitting multiple resorts during their stays.

“A combination of great snow conditions plus the great deals the resorts are offering really helped the resorts see the crowds through the holiday period,” said Jennifer Rudolph of Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade association representing most of the state’s ski resorts.
Ski Country member resorts saw “booming holiday traffic,” Rudolph said. She credited the “nonstop snow along with reduced gas prices, cheaper air fares, and a broad menu of creative new deals” for keeping skier visits and revenue strong.

Vail Resorts Inc., which isn’t a part of the Colorado Ski Country USA family, this week reported skier visits at its five resorts (Vail, Beaver Creek, Arrowhead, Keystone and Heavenly) were down 5.8 percent compared to the first third of last year’s season.

“As we expected, the current economic environment has certainly impacted the beginning of the 2008-2009 ski season with season-to-date skier visits down,” said Vail Resorts’ Chief Executive Officer Rob Katz.

However, skier visits during the two-week holiday period ending Jan. 4 were up, said Katz, reflecting a trend seen across the state.

“We started off pretty slow the first week of Christmas holiday, and then the second week, it was like somebody opened the flood gates,” said Sarah Allen of Powderhorn Ski Resort.

“We had a record weekend right off the bat after Christmas, and that followed through the entire first week of the new year.”

Allen said the record was revenue, not skier visits.

Vail, because it’s a publicly traded company, releases its skier days and revenue on a quarterly basis. Private ski areas don’t release their skier days until the season ends, although Colorado Ski Country USA does issue periodic reports of skier visits on a statewide basis. The first report for this winter is being compiled, Rudolph said.

Ski areas around the state say skiers are keying their trips on the lures of best snow and best deals.

“More than ever, current snow conditions are playing a role in people’s decisions,” said Loryn Kasten of Steamboat Ski Resort. “With the economy the way it is, people are being more tentative and waiting to make sure they’re getting the best snow, the best incentives and the best deals.”

That hesitation is paying off, as ski resorts unveil packages and promotions never seen before.

“We’ve come up with deals we’ve never come up with before this year,” said Allen, who added she changed her marketing budget this year to concentrate on the drive markets of western Colorado and eastern Utah.

Some of the fascinating package deals offered this year include Powderhorn’s Buddy, Burger & Beverage promotion (get two lift tickets, burgers and drinks for $120); Crested Butte’s Dollar an Inch, in which a skier gets a ticket and lodging for $100 when the resort tops 100 inches of snow; and Steamboat’s well-received Pow-Pow Platter, in which $100 got skiers a day at each of the three IntraWest resorts (Steamboat, Copper Mountain and Winter Park).

Kasten said the Pow-Pow Platter offer was so well-accepted “skier visits, especially for the holiday season, exceeded our expectations.” 

Most of those holiday deals have ended (Powderhorn’s is still alive), but other deals are out there.

“Skiers still can find more creative offers than ever,” Kasten said.

And that has skiers and snowboarders waiting until the last minute to book their trips, said Maryhelyn Kerwan of Telluride Ski and Golf Resort.

“Instead of booking 60 or 90 days out, our guests are waiting to see what deals and packages might open,” Kerwan said. “As opposed to years past, this year they’re finding that waiting really pays off in many situations.”


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