March comes in like a lamb

More skiers expected to hit town later this month

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— Members of the Steamboat resort community were hoping that fresh snow and relatively uncrowded slopes would be enough to lure last-minute skiers past the deep discounters in Summit County to ski Mount Werner this past weekend.

The lodging barometer published by the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association on Feb. 28 forecasted that on Saturday, Feb. 3, Steamboat needed to make up 2,000 visitors to reach last year's tourism level of 13,660 "occupied pillows."

The chamber's forecast, which is a prediction and not an actual number of visitors, was calling for 11,605 people to be sleeping on those guest pillows Saturday night.

"This year is a tough year, there's no doubt about it," Kathy Connell said. She is a principle in Colorado Resort Services, a property-management company that handles vacation condos near the base of the ski area. Connell is also president pro-tem of the Steamboat Springs City Council.

Connell said she believes Steamboat is being impacted by an ongoing trend among ski vacationers to make last-minute decisions on which ski area to visit. Despite adequate to good snow conditions this year, Steamboat's snow isn't that much better than other ski areas, she observed. When ski areas such as Copper Mountain offer specials such as two nights of lodging and two days of skiing for $89, it's hard to compete, Connell said.

"My concern is with being so dependent on the last-minute Front Range skier," Connell said. "That scares me."

Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. Vice President of Marketing Andy Wirth said he's somewhat perplexed by last week's lodging report because inbound airline seats into Yampa Valley Regional Airport near Hayden for Friday and Saturday had been sold out for 60 days.

"I realize that flies in the face of the lodging barometer," Wirth said. "I don't know what to say about that.

Wirth said he doesn't believe the lodging barometer is the single-best source of information when trying to gauge how busy upcoming weeks will be. He also looks at airline reservations and reports from Steamboat Central Reservations, which is owned and operated by the ski corp.

Wirth said his indicators tell him the middle three weeks of March, which are under way, will be strong. However, they will differ somewhat from last year, even if they turn out to be as robust, he predicted.

"This year, the demand is more spread out," Wirth said. In 2000, the third week in March was one of the busiest in the history of the ski area, Wirth said.

Officials at ski corp. recognized as early as January that early March bookings appeared to be soft, particularly in the first and last weeks of the month. During the first week of February, they announced they were taking "unprecedented" steps to see if they could bolster reservations for March and the last two weeks of the ski season in the first half of April.

Ski corp. decided within the span of 48 hours to purchase four television commercial spots that aired during NBC's coverage of the World Alpine Skiing Championships Feb. 11.

They seized the opportunity when the commercials were offered at discounted rates.

Wirth said that although the TV commercials caused a noticeable uptick in phone volume at central reservations, he won't reach a firm conclusion about whether the commercials were effective until he can do a thorough analysis of revenues compared to media expense.

"It's too early to say if it was a home run. We believe it was moderately successful," Wirth said.

"We'll reserve judgment about whether it was a wise media buy."

Wirth initiated talks with United Airlines and Air Wisconsin to extend the length of time it would fly BAe 146 86-passenger jets into Yampa Valley Regional Airport to include the first two weeks of April.

Wirth said those talks didn't bear fruit because changes in United's relationship with Air Wisconsin and Great Lakes Aviation dictated that those aircraft be based in Chicago by the end of March.

Wirth said he's already negotiating with American and Continental airlines to extend jet service in the spring of 2002 until April 6.

He is basing those efforts on the fact that Easter falls early next year, at the end of March, and on research into spring break patterns nationwide next year.

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