Execs adjust to aging customer base

Ski Corp. officials want to appeal to youths and preserve existing clients


— Texas crooner Pat Green wouldn't appear to have much to do with the Steamboat Ski Area's performance last winter. At least, not until you look a little deeper.

Green played his easygoing tunes to sold-out audiences at the Steamboat Grand Hotel during college ski week last January. Officials of the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., who underwrote the concerts, were so impressed they are contemplating finding a bigger concert venue for Green's concert next January. They're eager to satisfy the enthusiasm of fresh-faced college kids from the Lone Star State who go wild when they hear Green sing his hits "Carry On" and "Rusty Old American Dream."

Today's college kids represent Steamboat's future market for family vacationers.

"Green is huge in Texas," Ski Corp. Vice President of Marketing Andy Wirth said. "We're thinking about renting a 10,000- or 20,000-square-foot tent with heaters for next year."

Green isn't widely known this far from the Rio Grande. But in a sense, he is emblematic of the delicate balancing act Ski Corp. officials must play. They want to appeal to the youth market but not at the expense of preserving their market share in their aging core client base.

The mean age of Steamboat's visitors grew again last winter, up to 43.4 compared to 40.5 just the winter before. The numbers are even more striking when compared to the winter of 1994-95. Then, the mean age of ski vacationers here was 37.8.

"On one hand, it's good news because it means we have great family programs and our skiers get the message. And it could be argued that as our skiers continue to age, they have more disposable income," Wirth said. "But they obviously ski less as they age. And if we were to focus solely on that core customer, five, 10, 15 years from now, we'd have a very difficult time."

Steamboat's aging customer base is just one of the trends behind a season's worth of statistics Ski Corp. executives have been analyzing this offseason.

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

Steamboat's share of Colorado's skier total skier visits of 11.2 million grew last winter by three-tenths of a point to 8.91 percent. When only pure destination resorts are considered, Steamboat's market share grew from 25.87 percent in the winter of 2000-01 to 27.19 percent.

Destination resorts include Aspen, Telluride and Crested Butte, among others, but not resorts such as Vail, Keystone, Copper Mountain and Breckenridge, which are classified as "Front Range destination resorts."

The growth can be attributed to a 20 percent increase in Front Range skiers and riders visiting Steamboat as well as a 2 percent increase in skiers and riders coming here from out of state.

Wirth conceded the ski area and other tourism-related businesses here had to discount their rates this winter in order to grow their market share. But he doesn't think Steamboat gave in to discounting as much as other Colorado resorts.

"We traded some volume for yield, as did virtually every business that helped the ski season happen, especially lodging companies," Wirth said. "But not to the level of our competitors. The key is that we were able to hold onto and grow our destination business."

Based on surveys the Ski Corp. conducted on the mountain this winter, Wirth knows two-thirds, or 63 percent of Steamboat's 1 million skier visits this winter, came from out of state.

Surveys conducted by the ski area show 42 percent of Steamboat's visitors this winter flew into Yampa Valley Regional Airport near Hayden. Another 35 percent flew into Denver International Airport. Just 19 percent of Steamboat's ski season visitors arrived by car.

Wirth and his staff have turned their attention to the complex task of promoting the ski area to a fragmented market.

No one single city supplies as much as 10 percent of Steamboat's skier visits.

The most obvious points of origins are the cities with direct flights to Yampa Valley Regional Airport. Those cities and their share of Steamboat's market include: New York, 8.2 percent; Chicago, 7.5 percent; Dallas, 5.5 percent; Houston, 3.6 percent; and Minneapolis, 3.3 percent. But there are 38 other "fly-through markets" the Ski Corp.'s marketing staff scrutinizes.

Wirth knows, for example, that about 10 percent to 12 percent of the population of Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla., has taken a ski or snowboarding vacation. And he knows Continental Airlines has two flights to Houston from Tampa every morning that arrive within 90 minutes of the daily nonstop from Houston to YVRA. He'll push one-stop connections to Steamboat this winter to try to boost the 1.9 percent market share that originates in that Florida city.

Ski area executives are especially pleased with the survey results that gave Steamboat its highest score ever on "intent to return" here among last winter's guests. Based on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 1 indicating the guest definitely would not return, and 10 signifying the guest would definitely come back to Steamboat, Steamboat scored an 8.1, compared to 7.4 a year ago.

"That's not a Ski Corp. phenomenon," Wirth said. "That's their intent to return to this valley. It speaks positively to everyone here."


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