'We're going to be very cautious'

Hotel owners have reservations about holiday tourist season

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— Early ski season reservations for Steamboat have taken a steady pounding in the 26 days since the terrorist attacks on America. But most of the damage incurred thus far will be felt in December, and a Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. official says there is still hope for January, February and March.

Steamboat Vice President of Marketing Andy Wirth said this week the short-term reservations outlook has gone from bullish on Sept. 10 to bearish this week, and he doesn't expect the trend to reverse itself in time for the holidays.

"We've slowed the bleeding, but I couldn't say the demand has returned," Wirth said. "We're not expecting significant improvement over the next 30 days."

Chuck Porter, general manager of the Sheraton Steamboat Resort and Conference Center, agrees that the early part of the ski season could be quite slow.

"We're going to be very cautious about how we open the hotel up for the winter how much and how quickly we ramp up," Porter said.

However, Wirth said he sees room for optimism when he looks at ski season beyond the first of the year. Wirth said he talked to an official of Continental Airlines this week who reported building demand for leisure travel destinations like Hawaii and Florida. Those trends, Wirth believes, are a positive indicator for Steamboat, showing that the American public will board commercial jets to go on vacation this winter.

The current numbers, however, are not so optimistic.

On Sept. 10, Wirth said, year over year reservations at the ski area-controlled Steamboat Central Reservations were ahead by 21 percent. By the following Monday, Sept. 17, that number had softened to 10 percent ahead of last year's pace. Within another week, on Sept. 24, Wirth said, year-to-date reservations were flat when compared to the same date last year. On Oct. 1, the pace of reservations had slid to 8 percent below last year's level.

Wirth said it's important to go behind the numbers to understand their meaning.

"You have to understand when people make reservations" for different travel periods, Wirth explained.

The bulk of reservations at this point in the ski season are for November and December. The first key reservations period for destination ski travel beyond the first of the year will begin Oct. 15 and continue through Dec. 15, Wirth said.

Porter is seeing some of the same trends Wirth is. However, reservations for his hotel property are different from the overall traffic handled by central reservations. The Sheraton is heavily dependent upon group business than it is on "transient" individual travelers.

"Our group business is hanging in there," Porter said. "We're calling our groups very frequently to stay in touch. Of course, conventions still depend on individuals to register and book the blocks of rooms."

Porter said advance bookings for January and February were "exceptionally strong" before the Sept. 11 attacks on America and his staff was very happy with the prospects for the upcoming ski season.

Since then, they haven't seen many cancellations; however, telephone traffic has dried up almost completely.

March, as it has for the past two years, is looking a little soft, but most March reservations come in January and February. Porter remains optimistic that an early Easter will bolster transient hotel business in the last full month of the ski season.

December appears to be the real problem. Before the terrorist attacks, December was on par with previous years, Porter said. But that has changed.

"We're just not seeing the reservations come in at their historic pace, particularly for December," he said.

Steamboat's restaurants, shops and hotels traditionally do much of their hiring in late November, then gradually begin offering shifts to their new employees as ski season business builds. Often, the ski season isn't in full swing until Dec. 20.

Porter said he will have no choice this December but to carefully manage his costs to fit the level of business.

Wirth said he's concerned there is an impression in the community that the ski season jet flights to Steamboat have been jeopardized by the many flight reductions announced by the major carriers.

In fact, Wirth said, the flights to YVRA are assured by the minimum flight revenue guarantees to the airlines have demanded in exchange for flying to YVRA in the first place. Those guarantees offer the airlines assurance that even if the planes aren't full, they'll make money for operating the flight. Uncertainty about the profitability of other routes has led to their cancellation, Wirth pointed out.

Steamboat's contracts with the airlines give it the option of canceling flights if there isn't sufficient demand, but that's the only scenario in which the jets won't fly to YVRA this winter, Wirth said.

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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