Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.’s airline program could grow | SteamboatToday.com

Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.’s airline program could grow

Wirth: Ski Corp. to increase seat numbers on wings of ‘modest recovery’

Mike Lawrence

— An expansion of Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.'s airline program could bring 10,000 more visitors to the Yampa Valley next winter than are flying in this season.

Andy Wirth, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., said last week that Ski Corp. officials and some major airlines are projecting "a modest recovery" in the economy by next winter and are negotiating airline deals accordingly. Airlines servicing Yampa Valley Regional Airport were in the local spotlight last week, as a total of about 80 executives from United, Delta, Continental and SkyWest came to Steamboat Springs for the 11th annual Airline Partners' Summit. The event provided Ski Corp. hosts an opportunity to give airline representatives a feel for Steamboat as negotiations begin for 2010-11 winter flights, capacity and rates for YVRA.

This year's summit focused largely on morale in an effort to boost positive thinking for industry executives feeling the pain of an economic recession. Wirth said there are reasons for optimism.

"We will be growing capacity of wintertime seats into the (Yampa) Valley," Wirth said about the 2010-11 season. "We have enough data that supports that."

Wirth said the increase could be "in the magnitude of 5 to 10 percent of total capacity." The airline program will finish this season with a total of 138,000 available round-trip seats, which he said is a similar capacity to the 2005-06 season.

"So I think it's practical to think about a supplemental 8,000 to 12,000 seats coming to the Yampa Valley next year," Wirth said.

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The airline program peaked in 2007-08, Wirth said, when 162,000 round-trip seats were available. This year's numbers for seats booked are trending down "a few (percentage) points" compared with last winter, Wirth said.

But that doesn't change the expected expansion next year.

Wirth pointed to a weekly report he receives from Interna­tional Strategy and Investment, a New York City-based investment research and portfolio management firm. The report includes results of an "Airlines Survey" that compiles data to create a single number quantifying booking demand. Last week, ISI's Oscar Slaterbeck reported that "ISI's Airlines Survey moved up from 46.3 to 47.3. The four-week average rose from 45.5 to 46.2." Slaterbeck said those numbers translate to "strong domestic bookings."

To put those numbers in context, Wirth said survey results peaked in the late 1990s, when air travel was booming and ISI's figure was consistently "in the neighborhood of 75 to 85." The survey's lowest point was immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, Wirth said, when the figure dropped to the low teens. The economic recession has had a similar impact.

"In the first two quarters of 2009, the demand was in the mid-20s," Wirth said.

But booking demand appears to be increasing.

"There's no doubt that the airlines are seeing modest recovery in demand for overall domestic sales," Wirth said Thursday. "We might look at new markets, certainly look at existing carriers, and very much be looking at increasing capacity around key demand timeframes."

Those key demand timeframes primarily are winter holidays, which could see increased visitors next year.

The airline summit featured a Wednesday morning seminar at The Steamboat Grand, an afternoon of skiing and snowmobiling and a Wednesday evening dinner featuring local and visiting Olympians at Three Peaks Grill.

Wirth said he had an "outstanding" reaction to the event from airline executives, who Wirth noted have had a tough job in recent years.

"They have all been operating in a very distressed environment from a cost-structure perspective and a revenue environment perspective," he said.

Last week, Republic Airways announced that Lynx Avia­tion, the regional subsidiary of Frontier Airlines, will close by mid-September. Wirth said although Frontier representatives were not able to attend last week's summit in Steam­boat, he recently met with Frontier CEO Sean Menke in Denver.

"We're just getting into discussions that will dovetail with what they have going on," Wirth said about the meeting.

YVRA Manager Dave Ruppel said traffic at YVRA has been "about flat" this winter compared with last year. He credited Wirth and Ski Corp. for their work in building relationships with airline industry executives.

"Andy and his crew do a great job of making those connections," Ruppel said.

Busy weekend expected

The Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association’s lodging barometer is forecasting 13,708 visitors for the Presidents Day holiday, or nearly 80 percent occupancy of the city’s total 17,352 guest pillows. The corresponding weekend of Feb. 14, 2009, brought 12,788 visitors to Steamboat, or 74 percent of last year’s 17,281 total pillows. The term “pillows” is a lodging term for guest beds and is seen as a more accurate measure of visitor numbers than guest rooms.

The Chamber’s seasonal forecast projects a dip in lodging after next weekend, to about 50 percent occupancy at the end of February, before visitor numbers increase again to an expected 70 percent occupancy in Steamboat for the week of March 8 to 14. A similar trend occurred on corresponding weeks in 2009.

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