Destination traffic slightly up

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— Skier visits at the Steamboat Ski Area declined by a fraction of a percentage point last winter, but resort leaders were calling it a win because key segments of Steamboat's skier market were able to post gains, even in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Steamboat finished the ski season hosting 1,001,003 skier visits. That number was 2,314 fewer than in 2001, when the ski area counted 1,003,317 visits, a decline of two-tenths of a percent.

"Our destination skiers grew by about 2 percent," Steamboat President Chris Diamond said. "That was pretty significant."

Steamboat also saw a 20 percent surge in visitation by Front Range skiers, and those guests stayed an average of 3.6 days.

Steamboat succeeded in repositioning itself as a primary short vacation destination for in-state skiers, Diamond said.

"It will be interesting to see if those numbers settle back a little bit next year," he said.

A year ago, Diamond expressed grave concern about the impact that steeply discounted buddy passes offered at major ski areas on the I-70 corridor was having on Steamboat. What the ski area learned was that the buddy passes were so inexpensive, their owners didn't perceive a strong disincentive to skiing elsewhere on a short vacation.

Steamboat pitched reduced lodging packages to those skiers, and that played right into a developing trend.

Statewide, Colorado Ski Country USA reported a 4 percent decline in skier days to 11.15 million.

While Colorado Ski Country found overall Front Range skier visits declined across the state last winter, the number of Front Range skiers and riders who took overnight trips was on the rise.

Steamboat was gathering momentum at the end of the ski season; skier visits here during the quarter ending April 28 were up 5 percent over the same period last winter. April, with unusually warm weather, didn't contribute much to those numbers. Essentially, Steamboat was up in February and March.

Diamond said he believes Steamboat might have been up as much as 4 percent for the entire ski season except for a couple of factors. The balmy April weather cut the number of local skiers and riders using their season passes and value cards during the final two weeks of the season. Steamboat also lost 10 days at the front of the ski season, when it was forced to delay its opening because of a lack of snow.

Ironically, in a winter with slightly below-average season snowfall, skiers on opening day had some of the best powder skiing of the season.

Steamboat was unable to open on time on Nov. 21, 2001, but cranked up the lifts with 4 feet of snow on Nov. 30.

Steamboat's final numbers were held back until the release of parent American Skiing Co.'s third-quarter earnings report.

System-wide, ASC saw its skier visits drop from 4.4 million to 3.75 million. Mount Snow, Vt., took one of the biggest percentage hits, declining from more than 558,000 skier visits in 2000/2001 to 471,600 last winter. Killington, Vt., also suffered last winter. After eclipsing Steamboat with 1.07 million visits the previous winter, Killing dropped to 954,000 last winter.

Total earnings for the third quarter of fiscal 2002 were $131.6 million, compared with $151.9 million for the previous year's third quarter. Adjusting for ASC's sale of the Sugarbush, Vt., ski area early last winter would boost resort revenues during the third quarter to $128.1 million.

The company's total earnings from operations before interest, income taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) actually grew in the third quarter over the same period last year. ASC's resort EBITDA was $47.3 million compared to $45.4 million a year ago.

The third quarter represents the strongest revenue phase of the ski season and thus of the entire year for ASC. It must continue to fund its operations throughout the year, relying heavily upon third-quarter earnings.

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