Merchant passes up in the air

Task force aims to raise $850,000 under flight program

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— Local business owners who want to secure the most advantageous pricing on merchant ski passes for their employees this winter will need to "Fly Steamboat."

Chamber members who agree to contribute at least the minimum $2,000 to the Steamboat Air Program Task Force will be able to purchase merchant passes at an early season rate. The money will be used to build up an $850,000 match to the $1.3 million the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. guarantees to secure ski season jet flights to Yampa Valley Regional Airport. Total cost of the program this year is estimated to be $2.15 million.

The minimum contribution of $2,000 is negotiable for businesses that gross less than $800,000 or are able to make a convincing case that they face extenuating circumstances, Chamber Executive Vice-President Sandy Evans-Hall said.

"Anyone can call me," she said. "We'd certainly talk to you about a lower minimum."

This year's minimum participation level is double that of last year.

The number of available ski season jet seats will increase by 6.4 percent to about 137,000 this winter.

Businesses that contribute to the air program can secure merchant passes at the early season rate of $885 with a down payment of $100. Companies not choosing to support the "Fly Steamboat" air program will pay the mid-season pass price of $1,125 for a merchant pass, with a down payment of $450.

Typically, the burden of the higher-priced merchant pass would be passed along to employees who would pay for their ski passes through regular payroll deductions.

Businesses choosing not to contribute to the airline program still have the option of buying season passes for their employees at the early season rate, but they would have to write checks for the full amount and would not be taking part in the merchant pass program. Also, the name of the employee who would be assigned the pass would have to be supplied upon purchase.

Evans-Hall said the increasing challenge of raising funds to cover airline revenue guarantees, and a desire to broaden the base of local businesses and professionals who participate, prompted the changes in the merchant pass program.

"We've got a huge challenge raising $850,000 for the community portion of the airline guarantees," Evans Hall said. "We knew we'd have to appeal to sectors (of the local economy) we haven't before."

Evans-Hall said among others, the airline task force is hoping to expand its base in the real estate industry and among professionals.

Bill Stuart of Market on the Mountain said the motivation in increasing the minimum was to avoid a situation that has happened in the past, where large businesses mistook the minimum for the "recommended" participation level. They mailed in a check for $1,000 when a larger contribution might have fit their situation.

Stuart is convinced that the airline program is critical to Steamboat's success as a resort community.

"The recent loss of air programs in Crested Butte and Durango, with a corresponding loss of jobs, shows the importance of the air program to the local economy," Stuart said.

Marcia Cobb, manager of Steamboat Snowmobile Tours, said her company has been participating in the airline program for three years. Her position is that all of the local companies she does business with are benefiting from tourism dollars and therefore should participate in the airline program.

Fritz Aurin of the Steamboat Smokehouse is a supporter of the airline program but believes some people are holding back because there isn't a more structured entity providing checks and balances on the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.'s management of the airline program.

Ski Area Vice President of Marketing Andy Wirth has said he would open the books of the airline program to participants.

However, Aurin said he would personally be more comfortable if a community-based organization with some accounting function was in place to oversee the airline program.

Restaurants like Aurin's have agreed to contribute one-quarter of one percent of their gross receipts to the program.

Aurin said it's frustrating to observe that not everyone in the food and beverage industry is participating.

Evans-Hall said another change in the program this year should address some of Aurin's concerns. Some businesses in the past have pledged participation, availed themselves of the opportunity to obtain merchant passes, and then failed to deliver on their pledge, Evans-Hall said.

This year, instead of giving businesses until September of the following year to pay their pledges in full, the Chamber is requiring that they be paid in full by March 1, 2003. Businesses contributing more than $5,000 must pay half of the total by March 1, with the balance due by Sept. 30.

Evans-Hall explained the change is necessary so the air program task force has some leverage to ensure businesses make good on their pledges, and if necessary, intervene before the ski season is over and holders of merchant passes have already received full value.

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