Andy Wirth is convinced he can land vacationing skiers at Salt Lake City International Airport, right in front of the noses of ski executives at Snowbird and Park City, Utah, and fly them over the Wasatch Range to an ultimate destination in Steamboat Springs.
Wirth, vice president of marketing at Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., made it official Tuesday: Delta Airlines will serve Yampa Valley Regional Airport for the first time this ski season with a daily 737 from Salt Lake City as well as a direct flight from Atlanta on Saturdays. That flight will be operated on a 183-seat Boeing 757.
"We're taking on Utah directly with the flight," Wirth said. "Steamboat is one of the top five (ski vacation) destinations in America. The power of our brand and the power of our product," will be enough attraction to persuade skiers to fly beyond Utah's destination ski areas.
The strategy behind promising revenue guarantees for the new flights is twofold, Wirth said. He's seeking to recover lost market share in California as well as tap directly into the strong ski market in Atlanta and cities on the Eastern seaboard.
"This is a big move on our part," Wirth said. "It's not just adding a city. We've wanted to work with (Delta) since 1986, but couldn't make the numbers work out."
Wirth acknowledged that over the past seven years, the percentage of destination skiers visiting Steamboat from California has slipped from 9 percent of the total out-of-state visitation to 3 percent last year.
That erosion happened as Utah has become the No. 1 destination of choice for Californians looking for convenient ski vacations.
Delta's strength in California is that in addition to serving Los Angeles International Airport, the carrier flies directly to Salt Lake City from smaller airports perceived to be more convenient by many Californians.
"Either Delta or Delta Express serves every mid-range and major airport in California -- John Wayne, Ontario, Oakland, San Diego," and more, Wirth said. However, the "Fly Steamboat" program is betting on more than West Coast passengers to make the Salt Lake City connection viable. He says research into airline industry statistics and origin and destination numbers, suggest half of the passengers on the Steamboat flights will originate in cities east of the Rockies. That conclusion is supported by the experience of Jackson Hole ski area in Wyoming, which has enjoyed service from Salt Lake City for many years.
The Delta 737-300 that Delta is scheduled to fly into YVRA from Salt Lake City daily beginning Dec. 18 will carry 128 passengers. Wirth is aiming at load factors ranging from the mid-60-percent range to the low-70-percent range.
"This is a large aircraft. We considered turboprops and regional jets," Wirth said, but the comfort of the larger jet and its ability to carry skiers' extra luggage factored into the choice of aircraft.
Wirth did not specify the size of the minimum revenue guarantee Steamboat's resort community had to put up to secure the Salt Lake City daily flight and the Saturday 757 from Atlanta. However, he's optimistic that when the contracts are settled up next spring, Steamboat has a chance to secure the flights for less than $250,000 net. The cost is comparable to the guarantees Steamboat has supplied United airlines for daily 737's from Denver, he added.
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