Town expecting more visitors this year

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— The Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association is forecasting more people will visit the ski area this holiday season.

But there are signs that even with more tired skiers laying their heads on local pillows at night, not all of the lodges will be as full as they were last year.

Locals should notice the mountain and downtown getting busier this Saturday as the chamber predicts there will be 7,595 visitors in town, about 1,100 more than last year on the corresponding Saturday, Dec. 25. The timing of the holiday typically has an impact on when people arrive for their ski vacation, but the salient point is that even with more than 1,000 additional visitors this year over last year, the lodging occupancy rate for Saturday is hovering at the same level, about 47 percent.

The reason for the discrepancy can be found in Steamboat's expanding bed base. The chamber reports that Steamboat's tourist accommodations now number about 2,600 more "pillows" this year than last 20,200 compared to 17,603 last winter.

At least one local property management company in Steamboat captured early season business by acknowledging the poor early season snow of the past two years and discounting condos for pre-holiday skiers.

"We had a real solid week this week," Steamboat Resorts President Bob Milne said Wednesday. "We had some college groups and some ski clubs, and we had some general individual business. All of our properties were in the high 70s and low 80s (occupancy rate)."

Steamboat Resorts manages about 700 condominiums. In other years, the company would have sought holiday rates for the week ending Dec. 22, but this year Milne and his department heads tried a different strategy. Instead of asking $675 a night for a three-bedroom condo, they cut their rates to $395 a night.

"Other years we might have tried to get the higher rate for two weeks at Christmas," Milne said. "But Tim Johnson, our director of marketing, and director of reservations and travel Leslie Knutson said, 'Let's not wait until the last minute to cut our rates.' We came out of the box in October with the lower rate and it helped capture the business. It was price-sensitive business. I think that was a good strategy."

Steamboat's holiday rush looks like it will begin in earnest on Wednesday when the chamber is forecasting 12,000 visitors in town compared to 11,200 a year ago. That translates into 74 percent occupancy this year compared to 80 percent last year with the smaller bed base.

Terry Murphy, general manager of the Steamboat Grand, said his property is still learning what to expect during the holidays. The 232 condo units in his hotel, which can convert to as many as 412 hotel rooms, represent a significant portion of Steamboat's expanded tourist accommodations.

"It's our first year and we're watching closely and learning," Murphy said. "Thus far, December has exceeded our expectations."

Based on telephone traffic on Wednesday, Murphy expects hotel occupancy to continue to creep upward as Christmas approaches. But right now, he foresees the hotel being 70 percent full starting Dec. 25, building to the 80 percent range for three nights and retreating to 70 percent for several days.

Kathy Connell, one of the owners of Colorado Resort Services, said Christmas business in Steamboat has evolved over time, and especially in the past few years as consumers have learned to shop last minute for both ski resort accommodations and airline deals on the Internet.

"For several years, Steamboat's week before Christmas has been extraordinarily soft," Connell said. "The real driving force is what the airlines have done to us the last few years. That and the Internet."

People have learned that December snow in Colorado isn't always dependable, airline travel during the holidays is a major hassle and they can get better rates by waiting until the last minute, Connell said.

"People know that the earlier you make an airline reservation is not necessarily the best deal," Connell said. "Our business is just booming with Internet traffic people who see us on the Internet and call, and people who book online. It's close-in business. We used to sit back in October and know that 60 to 65 percent of our business was booked for the holidays."

Connell and Milne are both upbeat about January and beyond.

"Everyone in Colorado has good snow and the rest of the season is looking very strong for us," Connell said.

Milne said January 2001 is already stronger than last season.

"January and February are already looking extremely good for us," Milne said.

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