Season figures bucking trends

Airline reservations take off despite

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The last thing ski resort marketers want to see is an abrupt drop in consumer confidence. But ski season airline reservation figures suggest vacationing skiers are a little more optimistic than the rest of the population.

The nonprofit Conference Board reported that American consumer confidence took its biggest hit in two years in September, when the index dropped from a healthy 105 to 85. But Steamboat Ski Area marketing executive Andy Wirth said early ski season airline bookings are up.

"Year over year, we're up 9 percent in airline reservations," Wirth said. "The airline booking pace is performing very well in light of fuel prices and the impacts of Hurricane Katrina," Wirth said. "But we still have a long way to go."

The last time consumer confidence fell so sharply, during the first three months of 2003, Steamboat took a hit.

"The resort felt that, along with the entire resort industry," Wirth said.

Bob Milne, president of Steamboat Resorts, said strong group business is helping early season airline booking. The Texas Ski Council is bringing a large number of skiers in January. If anyone had a reason to lack confidence in the economy, it might be the members of the New Orleans and Baton Rouge ski clubs, but those two groups have confirmed their plans to come to Steamboat after the first of the year, Milne said.

Milne's property management company controls 18 vacation rental properties, from economy condos to million dollar-plus ski-in, ski-out townhomes. Each vacation property has a different story to tell this early in the ski vacation reservation cycle.

"Overall, we're trending a little bit ahead of last year," Milne said. "Group business is up about 25 percent. We went out about two years earlier this year with promotions to our customers, and repeat business is up 10 percent right now. You want to get excited, but it's early. We can book $500,000 of business one week, then fall back to $250,000 the next week."

The December holiday period is always on the minds of tourism-dependent businesses this time of year. Wirth said with Christmas and New Year's Day falling on Sundays this year, there are some challenges.

Wirth is encouraged about the week before Christmas, but Milne said it's a little soft right now.

The week before Christmas is never as busy as the week after. Most ski vacationers would prefer to remain at home through Dec. 25 and travel the next day or the day after. However, throughout the ski season, the biggest flight schedule into Yampa Valley Regional Airport is on Saturdays. With the holidays falling on Sunday this year, the ski area has arranged for extra flights at the start of the week. Milne said the strategy is paying off.

"We've always had a handle on the second week (after Christmas)," Wirth said.

Wirth said his marketing de----partment is adapting on the fly to the changing strategies that resorts along the Interstate 70 corridor are using in Colorado's urban market.

"We're in the throes of redefining some strategy," Wirth said. "We're focused on changes taking place in the competitive landscape on the Front Range."

The I-70 resorts are putting more emphasis on multiday discounted lift tickets, such as Copper Mountain's offer of four days of skiing for $49.

Wirth said two-thirds of the Front Range demographic is still responding well to Steamboat's package rates for two nights lodging and three days of skiing.

However, the resort is working on new strategies to attract more business from the other one-third -- second-home owners and people who stay with friends in Steamboat.

Wirth said most of the airlines flying into YVRA this winter reflect good early bookings. American Airlines' daily flights from Dallas and Chicago are particularly strong. The Chicago flight was upgraded from a Boeing 737 to a larger 757.

-- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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