Steamboat Springs After witnessing the holiday tourism blitz of 2002, Irene Wilkinson called in the reinforcements this year.
Wilkinson is the manager of the Steamboat Springs Safeway store; she is one of many business people here striving to deliver goods and services to meet the demands of unprecedented holiday tourism. More than 14,000 visitors inundated this town of 9,815 last week.
Wilkinson said her supermarket broke all records Dec. 24 in the midst of a week that also was record-breaking. Her staff is making it through the holidays with the help of experienced Safeway employees from the Front Range.
"I brought in six experienced clerks, mostly from Denver, but also from Greeley," Wilkinson said. "It made a big difference. I put them up at the Super 8 for two weeks, and it was well worth it. We were up a lot over last year."
Steamboat's condominiums were 98 percent full Dec. 31, and all of the resort condominiums offer guests the option of preparing meals in their units.
Steve Melnick of Miami was one of the vacationers patronizing Steamboat's grocery stores as well as its restaurants.
"We mostly cook in our condo," Melnick said. "We're usually too tired from skiing to go out."
Melnick and his family have been coming to Steamboat during the holidays for six years. They purchased a townhome at the Villas at Walton Creek. They arrived in Steamboat on Dec. 17, ahead of the holiday travel crush.
Steamboat's restaurants also saw a high volume of business during the past two weeks. Fritz Aurin of the Steamboat Smokehouse said his restaurant had a 90-minute waiting list Dec. 30.
"This is far and away the best December we've ever had," he said.
He had to turn away some customers in spite of the fact that he remodeled an addition to his Lincoln Avenue restaurant this fall in order to better serve large groups.
"I wish I had more seats, in spite of our expansion," Aurin said.
Further up Lincoln, Jenny Wilson observed that customers were tracking the abundant powder into her high-end women's clothing store, Moose Mountain Trading Company. But she wasn't the least bit put out.
"Our floor looked like a giant puddle," Wilson said with a laugh. "We've been happy to see a lot of familiar faces returning this year."
Wilson said there is a distinct difference between the kind of customers her store sees during Christmas week and during New Year's week.
"Christmas was very intense," Wilson said, and the week after is just as intense. "Nobody is trying anything on before Christmas because they are buying gifts. This week, people are more relaxed, and our dressing rooms are busier."
Many of Steamboat's hotels and condominiums were sold out during the past week. However, Peter Tuler at the Western Lodge on Lincoln Avenue said he had between four and eight vacant rooms each night although his nightly rate of $68 was among the cheapest in town. Ironically, Tuler said some of his guests were local residents who had rented their homes out to tourists at much higher rates.
Hospital staff kept busy
The holidays always make Yampa Valley Medical Center busier than usual; both residents and tourists contribute to the crush. In addition to injured skiers and snowboarders coming off Mount Werner, the hospital sees many residents who schedule surgeries before the annual need to fulfill a health insurance deductible kicks in once again.
Through Dec. 30, the hospital's emergency department wasn't quite as busy as it was in December 2002, when it saw 365 patients, spokeswoman Christine McKelvie said. This year, the emergency department had seen 346 patients as of Dec. 30.
"We've seen patients from almost every state in the union and from several foreign countries during the holidays," McKelvie said Tuesday. "It's very, very busy today."
On Dec. 29, the hospital's three operating rooms and two procedure rooms handled 29 patients, the busiest day ever in the "day surgery" department.
"Most were local people who have already paid their deductible," McKelvie said.
New Year's Eve produced a number of patients coming off the ski area. As of 3 p.m., 35 patients had arrived at the emergency department, none of them with critical injuries. That compares with a total of 70 patients on New Year's Eve 2002.
"There are still more on the way," McKelvie cautioned.
City transit hustles
Steamboat Springs Transit's free-to-rider bus service is always affected by the holiday rush. New Year's Eve is always the biggest day of the year with about 9,000 passengers compared with typical ski season daily peaks between 5,000 and 6,000, Transit Director George Krawzoff said.
December has been a month that has raised some questions in Krawzoff's mind. SST's winter ridership has been declining for three years, and this December, through Christmas Day, was off about 1,000 passengers per day compared with last winter.
Still, SST, has been unable to hire all of the bus drivers it needs. The city transit department struggled at times to meet peak passenger demand at key stops where tourists wait to catch a ride to the gondola in the morning, Krawzoff said.
"We've been unable to put on extra buses to meet demand as we have in the past, because we're short drivers," Krawzoff said.
"At times, we've come to the stop at Shadow Run (on Walton Creek Road) with a nearly full bus and either filled it, or even left some passengers behind," he said. "That creates trouble picking people up at AprÃs Ski Way (en route to the base of the ski area)."
Krawzoff said he has five new drivers due to graduate from their training program within 10 days. In the interim, five supervisors at SST have been pulling a driving shift a week to pick up some of the slack.
Krawzoff said his drivers are encountering more vehicular traffic than they have in past winters, making it more difficult to stay on schedule, which in turn, can discourage bus ridership.
"I don't know if that means more people are renting cars, or what," Krawzoff said.
Students make next wave
Families, many multi-generational, dominated the holiday crowd -- families such as the Zalewskis, who have been coming here for 15 years. Bill Zalewski and his wife, Terry, were in street clothes Tuesday as they took their 18-month-old grandson, Jaxon, for his first ride up the gondola.
"He'll be skiing next winter," Grandma Zalewski pointed out proudly.
The Zalewskis raised their own children in upstate New York, then relocated to Southern California, where they missed the snow.
When their adult children moved to Fort Collins and Denver, the Zalewskis bought Christmas and New Year's timeshare intervals at the Celebrity Suites resort on Pine Grove Road.
"Southern California doesn't have the same kind of skiing Steamboat has," Bill Zalewski said. "Mammoth Mountain doesn't get this kind of snow. We love it here."
The Zalewskis celebrated their 39th wedding anniversary at Giovanni's during the holidays and said they had a great meal.
Steve Cutler of Bryn Mawr, Penn., arrived late Christmas Eve with a group of 22 people. This was his fourth trip to Colorado in 24 months. His family stayed at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort and ate out for breakfast and dinner, enjoying restaurants ranging from Slopeside Grill to Riggio's and Old West Steakhouse.
This week, Steamboat will see an abrupt shift from families on vacation to single college students in pursuit of all the things college students on winter break like to pursue: powder, beer and rock 'n' roll.
Steve Melnick's 21-year-old son, Tony, arrived two weeks early.
"Do you realize the ratio of men to women here is 3 to 1?" Tony Melnick asked. "This is a great family atmosphere, but there's no nightlife."
That will change drastically this week, as performance tents are erected in the gondola parking lot to accommodate a series of live music shows associated with college ski week.
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