Skier visits flat in 2002-03

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— It wasn't a banner year, but it wasn't a bad one, either.

The Steamboat Ski Area held steady at more than 1 million skier visits in the 2002-03 season, while other ski resorts in the state posted modest gains.

Despite overall flat numbers, Steamboat officials are encouraged by other bright spots in the ski area's customer base.

"The season was certainly characterized by quite a few challenges as well as a few highlights," said Andy Wirth, vice president of marketing for the Steamboat Ski Area.

One of those highlights came courtesy of in-state skiers and riders. Visits by Front Range residents rose for the third year in a row. The numbers are not only heartening but an indication that marketing strategies on the Front Range are working, Wirth said.

"We've been quite aggressive down there," he said.

The Steamboat Card program, now in its ninth year, continues to grow and attract a following.

Steamboat continues to see "robust growth" in season and value passes, he said. Those increases helped the resort maintain its skier visits in 2002-03.

Wirth attended a meeting Thursday with other ski resort officials. The ski industry was described as thriving despite a "perfect storm of problems" during the most recent ski season.

A combination of factors created that perfect storm, Wirth said. A flagging economy, apprehension about war with Iraq and the SARS outbreak were major problem-causers.

But smaller elements, such as a volatile airline industry, contributed to the mix.

There are signs, however, that clearer skies are ahead. "There's some good things shaping up," Wirth said.

Improvements to the Yampa Valley Regional Airport will enhance winter visitors' first and last impression of their time in Steamboat. Consumer confidence is rising, and the ski area benefits from a resilient customer base. An impressive number of skiers and riders intend to return to Steamboat when the snow falls.

On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being an absolute intent to return next winter, visitors' intent-to-return answers averaged 8.4. That's a .3-point jump from the 2001-02 season and the second highest intent-to-return level in the resort's history.

And ski officials aren't going to let would-be returnees forget why they wanted to come back in the first place.

Visitors to the ski area will receive a steady stream of phone calls, e-mails and letters about a winter getaway in the Yampa Valley over the next 45 days. That means the Houston man smoldering in 96-degree heat with 96-percent humidity next week may feel compelled to book his January vacation early.

"We're going to remind them about champagne powder," Wirth said. "We're going to cool down their day."

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