Officials optimistic about ski season

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— Chris Diamond is cautiously optimistic about the pace of reservations for the coming ski season. He's more confident that two of Steamboat's entry points will make a better impression on arriving vacationers this year.

The president of the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. told an audience of business leaders this week that newly remodeled passenger areas at Yampa Valley Regional Airport and improvements to the gondola transit center should elevate the perception of the resort.

"I flew into the airport Sunday night, and I was impressed with the progress that has been made just in the last 10 days," Diamond said Wednesday during the 96th annual Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association meeting. "I think we'll have a whole different quality of experience for our fly-in-and-out guests. The transit center is really coming together and will present a whole different impression to our guests."

Routt County is providing a 10 percent match for a federal grant funding a $765,000 addition on the airport terminal that will provide more space for travelers going through security and checking luggage on their way home.

The Ski Corp. and the city of Steamboat Springs are cooperating on a renovation of the gondola transit center that will streamline access to ground transportation for skiers. At the same time, the first phase of a face-lift for Gondola Square will modernize pedestrian areas leading from the transit center to the ticket office and gondola.

It's traditional for ski area executives to speak at the annual chamber meeting each autumn and assess the prospect for the winter season.

Diamond said the table was set for a good resort season with an 8 percent increase in available airline seats over last year.

"If the planes are 65 to 70 percent full, we're talking a nice, healthy increase in business over last year," Diamond said. "Wouldn't that just be a sweet thing compared to last year?"

However, Diamond pointed out that reservations were proceeding at a brisk pace last year at this time, too. The early momentum was fueled by early snows, but that trend evaporated amid uncertainty about the war in Iraq."

"(Airline) booking to date is up in terms of gross dollars as well as load factors," Diamond said. "However, when we got to late December (last year) the air went out of the bubble. It's too early to call the season a slam dunk. Certainly, the holidays look good. The further the trend goes, the better off we'll be."

Diamond was preceded at the podium Thursday by Rob Perlman, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA, the trade association for the state's 24 ski and snowboard resorts.

Perlman said that during his days as a marketing executive at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., he learned to focus on what his resort was best equipped to do, which was attract skiers and riders representing Southern California's youth movement.

Today, he is committing Colorado Ski Country USA to narrowing its marketing focus on the state's top five domestic markets: California, Texas, Illinois, New York and Florida.

"We're not putting any of our dollars into the Front Range," Perlman said. "Our mission is to promote out-of-state visitation. We want to move that needle."

Perlman believes the past two ski seasons, when Colorado logged 11.6 million skier visits, have demonstrated that destination skiers are resilient. However, he acknowledged that much of last winter's 4 percent growth came from Front Range skiers in the face of declines in out-of-state skiers.

The growing strength of Canadian currency should help Colorado this winter, he predicted. Travel trends also show that Americans gradually are showing a willingness to travel greater distances, Perlman said.

A significant challenge -- not just for Steamboat, but for all Colorado ski areas -- is access, Perlman said. The arduous trip by ground transportation from DIA up the Interstate 70 corridor and back represents a challenge that calls for both short- and long-term solutions, he added. During key times of the week, the highway already is at capacity, and the traffic backups are an issue for resorts. Perlman is anticipating that as soon as Dec. 1, the Colorado Department of Transportation will release a "programmatic environmental impact statement" that will characterize solutions but won't provide the answer on how to pay for those measures.

Diamond said his company's research is indicating that Front Range skiers leaving Steamboat for home at 4:30 p.m. on a Sunday can expect the same driving time as if they had left a ski area on the I-70 corridor earlier in the afternoon. By the time the Steamboat skier reaches the Interstate at Silverthorne, Diamond said, the traffic backup along the highway through the Eisenhower Tunnel and down into Denver finally will have cleared. Weekend skiers who sat in traffic could just as easily have been driving from Steamboat via U.S. Highway 40 and Colorado Highway 9 without adding to their drive time.

Diamond said Steamboat's Front Range guests, most of whom plan on a long weekend here, are beginning to look more and more like out-of-state visitors. As the national trend continues to be shorter vacations, Front Range skiers are increasingly taking advantage of in-state vacations.

Diamond said the average duration of visits from out-of-state visitors now stands at 3.8 to 3.9 days compared to 3.6 days for Colorado skiers.

"Our Colorado guest is a guest who is vacationing here," Diamond said.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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