March madness

Airline reservations up 1,700

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Steamboat's tourism-based businesses are headed into the crux of the ski season and competing for their share of a declining destination-skier base.

Chuck Porter, general manager of the Sheraton Steamboat Resort and Conference Center, said this week he is more optimistic about March business than he was just several weeks ago.

"We're very encouraged by March leisure bookings," Porter said. "The short-term pace is incredible."

Andy Wirth, marketing executive for American Skiing Co.'s Western resorts, said this week there is reason for hope.

"For March, we are 1,700 (airline) seats ahead of this time last year," Wirth said. "March is such a critical month for all of the businesses in town."

Still, Porter said, his hotel has a significant number of holes to fill.

March is typically the biggest month of the ski season in Steamboat, but last year, the reservation pipeline suddenly went dry in late January and February as the nation contemplated the prospect of going to war.

Area lodging managers hoping to improve on last year's performance probably will have to do so by taking business from one another.

"What we're seeing here is a fight for market share," Porter said. National

destination-skier days increased last year, primarily because of an increase in visits to smaller ski areas on both coasts. However, "paid skier visits" at Steamboat (those that aren't accounted for by season passes and value cards) have been decreasing from a peak of 725,000 in 1998-99 to last year's 527,000.

The number of guest pillows in Steamboat has grown in the past five years to 18,775 -- peaking at 19,150 in 2003 -- but gross revenue from lodging in Steamboat essentially has remained flat.

Porter uses the single percentage point of lodging tax collected by the city of Steamboat Springs as the truest measure of what he calls "gross community room revenue."

Annual accommodation tax collections in 2000 were $618,000. Last year, that number was $615,000. Do the math and it's easy to conclude gross room revenue has been flat at about $61.5 million for several years.

"I always look to see what is my capture of the total," Porter said.

Keith Skytta, who manages Snowflower Condominiums near the base of the gondola, said he hopes to be up several percentage points in February and March compared with the same period last year. But last year was a big disappointment.

"I may be 5 percent or 4 percent ahead of last year for February and March," Skytta said. "But we lost $120,000 in gross sales last year. That's 25 percent of my business."

Skytta said the trend to shorter vacations hurts lodging businesses. Not only does he have to pay his housekeeping staff to do end-of-stay cleanings more often, but he is left with gaps of one or two days throughout the calendar that are almost impossible to fill.

Porter said his hotel ran contrary to the trend last March and posted a bullish month on the strength of convention and group business.

"This March, we didn't have that group base," Porter said. "It looked like it would be difficult to fill in with leisure (travelers)."

A growing trend in the travel industry is vacationers waiting to book until closer to their trip dates. Porter said the trend is only getting stronger, and the lead time vacationers feel they need to make plans is growing ever shorter.

"Just when you think it couldn't get any shorter, it gets shorter," Porter said.

Wirth said he expects people to continue booking ski vacations for several more weeks. It didn't used to be that way.

"In contrast to five to eight years ago, when the season was made by Christmas, I think we still have three to four weeks of destination market booking," Wirth said. "We continue to see pressure in the pipeline when, compared to last year at this time, when we saw demand fall off the table. We continue to see pacing and fill-in for the last three weeks of the ski season."

Steamboat scored a coup this winter, Wirth said, when United Airlines granted it exclusivity among ski destinations on a "Kids Fly Free" program to match the resort's Kids Ski Free program.

Kids Fly Free is good Sundays through Thursdays, and offers a free airline ticket for one child 12 or younger with every parent who books a minimum package of two nights lodging, lift tickets and roundtrip air.

Steamboat marketed the program aggressively nationwide, Wirth said. The ski area also used an e-mail program targeted at a "captive list" of prospective visitors who had inquired about a Steamboat vacation this winter, but had not yet purchased a vacation.

"We had 3,000 quotes in our reservations system," Wirth said.

He credited director of airline programs Janet Fischer and central reservations director Paula Sears for finding those visitors sitting on the fence and sweetening the deal with Kids Fly Free.

The e-mail program generated $400,000 in business, Wirth said.

Steamboat is feeling pressure from Interstate 70 resorts this spring as they engage in heavy discounting that amounts to "trashing prices," Wirth said. In response to advertised nightly room rates of $69, Wirth said, Steamboat is responding with a "Spring Free" program intended to lengthen stays while creating a perception of value.

Vacationers who stay five nights and purchase a four-day lift ticket get a free night of lodging and free day of skiing or riding.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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