Steamboat Springs The ski season of 2000/2001 started in a white blur as four feet of November snow allowed the Steamboat ski area one of the three earliest openings in its history on Nov. 18, four days ahead of schedule.
But the white gold rush of November and December tapped out in March, normally one of the busiest periods of the ski season in Steamboat.
As early as late January, ski area Marketing Vice President Andy Wirth was publicly saying the advance reservations for March were uneven, with low demand during the first week of the month, but high demand in the middle of the month. That situation evolved until there were some key arrival dates in March, where demand for airline travel into Yampa Valley Regional Airport could not be met the seats were all full.
The shortage of airline seats in March was due in part to a season-long decline of 14,000 seats from Chicago's O'Hare airport, which was directly served this winter. In spite of the fact that the planes were almost three-quarters full, the resort would suffer.
Julie Green, a veteran retailer on Lincoln Avenue, said March business never really materialized at her store, Steamboat Art Company. She's been in business for 22 years.
"We had a really strong season until March 1," Green said. "The first two weeks of the month were really bad. March is our second busiest month of the year and we were way off. We had no traffic.
It was just really quiet."
Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association President George Noyer says he is hearing from his peers that local businesses are down anywhere from 6 to 16 percent during the first quarter of 2001.
"It has been a difficult year, because you start so well and see it go down the drain. Nonetheless, we're making a living," Noyer said.
Noyer operates several retail stores both at the mountain and downtown. His store, Gondola General, is situated so that most of the skiers coming off the mountain at the end of the day parade by to go to the transit center.
Gondola General sells a wide variety of merchandise, from sunglasses and sunscreen to ski gloves and goggles and classy souvenirs.
November at Gondola General was up 30 percent over last November, followed by gains of 10 and 12 percent in December and January. February was flat and March was down 12 percent. Noyer expects that April will finish down 5 percent.
"Gondola General experienced a terrific November, December and January. We had a great start and a bad ending," Noyer said.
Steamboat Resorts President Bob Milne runs one of the largest property management companies in town. He said it's important to realize that when you compare March 2001 to March 2000, that last March was one of the busiest ever.
Noyer agreed, saying, when he looks back at the last five March's, he still experienced one of the best his store has ever had, even though it was off compared to last year.
At Steamboat Resorts, March bookings were down 18 percent from the previous month, but down a more reasonable 9 percent from March 1999.
A great start but ...
Milne said Steamboat Resorts got off to a good start in December and broke a 10-year record in January. February was average, but that month is usually busy enough that you can't "grow it too much anyway."
The first two weeks of March continued strong at Steamboat Resorts, but things went south at mid month.
"The last two weeks of March really killed us," Milne said. "We were just treading water from about March 17 on. Our occupancies were in the low 60 percent range, where normally they are in the high 80s to 90s."
Milne's company manages about 600 condominium units on the rental market in Steamboat. He has insights into the Vail/Beaver Creek market as well, because Steamboat Resorts manages 340 condominiums there.
Milne said Vail's business was strong throughout the ski season, he believes in part because of its buddy pass program that allowed front range skiers to purchase a season pass for $249 that was good at Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin. For an additional $50, they could purchase 10 days of skiing at Vail or Beaver Creek.
"They had a great year down there, plus they had the buddy pass. Any time there was a hole in a weekend, it filled up," Milne said of his company's properties in Vail/Beaver Creek.
Buddy pass no friend here
Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. President Chris Diamond said he doesn't think the buddy passes offered by Winter Park, Copper Mountain and Vail didn't begin to affect Steamboat until Vail added the 10 days at its big mountain, with the new Blue Sky Basin, for $50.
"That, in my judgment, was a significant change," Diamond said. "If you were on the fence, that was a compelling offer. That took a big chunk of the market that would have come to Steamboat for a long weekend."
Diamond said his management team is currently struggling to formulate its response to a second year of buddy passes next season, and they aren't finding any "slam dunk easy answers." Don't expect Steamboat to offer a buddy pass equivalent the economics "absolutely" don't work for the local ski area because of its distance from Denver, Diamond said.
Denver skiers wouldn't respond to an offer to buy inexpensive season passes here , Diamond said, because of the distance they would have to drive to use them with any frequency.
"We can offer passes for $299 and we're not going to sell any more," Diamond said. "Vail was able to leverage it only because of their ownership of the other resorts. They've got the whole market down there."
Diamond said he still believes skiers will travel to Steamboat from the Rront Range for long weekends particularly families, who have shown they are less likely to purchase buddy passes. Diamond said tentatively, Steamboat is looking at aggressive packaging of lodging packages with lift tickets to hand onto a share of the front range market.
Milne said he doesn't have an answer for why Steamboat was off so much in March when Vail seemed to be up significantly. However he believes part of the loss is attributable to the national economy.
People are booking "closer in" to the date when they will travel to Steamboat, Milne said. When the stock market really took a hit in March, people who had not yet booked spring vacations pulled back, he theorized.
Diamond agreed, but said he began to see the demand in the reservations pipeline weakening because of the economy as early as January.
Ski area officials normally refuse to discuss their skier day figures until the final numbers are in, but because Steamboat is publicly traded, the company must release skier day totals once during the ski season when parent company American Skiing makes its second-quarter financial report.
Steamboat had totaled 436,343 skier days as of Jan. 28, 2001, compared to 417,908 by Jan. 30, 2000. That represents an increase of 4.4 percent.
Diamond said there is no doubt the ski area will finish with fewer skier days than last year, but declined to say just how much of a hit it will be.
He did say, he would attribute half of whatever that decline is to the bad news about the national economy late this winter.
Diamond said he's noticed another trend that underscores just how important direct jet flights into Yampa Valley Regional Airport are to the resort.
It used to be that half of the airline passengers headed for Steamboat came through Denver and the other half flew on direct flights.
Now, that balance has shifted to 60 percent direct flights and 40 percent via Denver.
Making ends meet
The trend fits with remarks made by marketing and advertising consultant Peter Yesawich during a speech made to Steamboat's airline partners at the Steamboat Grand at the end of January.
Travelers are taking shorter and shorter vacations, Yesawich said, and are reluctant to travel more than three hours one way, to enjoy a four-day vacation.
Local businesses came up with $700,000 to augment the $1.4 million the ski corp. budgeted to guarantee direct jet flights would come to Steamboat this winter.
Green said she contributed the suggested amount of $1,500 for retailers.
She said she believes in the airline program, but after a disappointing March, she'll have to see where next year's contribution will come from.
Her employees are asking for more money, and she said she may have to cut her charitable contributions in order to take part in the airline program again.