Ski officials address dip in bookings

Wirth: Local figures on par with Vail, but Steamboat has advantages

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— Local trends in ski season vacation bookings don't stray far from what Vail Resorts reported a couple of weeks ago, Andy Wirth said.

Wirth, chief marketing officer for Intrawest, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.'s parent company, avoided giving specific numbers for Steamboat Springs. But Vail CEO Rob Katz said bookings for Vail Resorts' owned and managed hotels were down 17.7 percent for the season compared with last year, the Vail Daily reported.

That number "is indicative of what all of Colorado is seeing as far as booking trends," Wirth said.

The trembling economy is affecting Steamboat, he said.

"We are, in fact, seeing that impact," Wirth said. "We're getting deep enough into the booking season that we are, in fact, seeing year-over-year, year-to-date negative trends."

About 25 to 28 percent of the season's bookings have been made, he said.

"In many ways, we know that snow and a good snow season last year going into this season can certainly help us, but basically what we're facing now is a tough hill to climb," Wirth said.

Even in the struggling economy, Steamboat is well positioned in terms of ski season accessibility and airfares, he said. The addition of Frontier Airlines has increased capacity at Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden. On top of that, the ski resort has been able to influence fares. The cost of many flights has dropped hundreds of dollars during a few months because of those discussions and falling oil prices, Wirth said.

He compared the economic upheaval to the Sept. 11 attacks in terms of impact. Ski Corp. was worried about the effects of that tragedy, he said, but then found that visitor numbers for 2001-02 were up compared with 2000-01.

"We have a very resilient customer base, and that's the other learning from the post-9/11 environment," Wirth said.

It's still too early to tell what the season will hold, said Sandy Evans Hall, executive vice president of the Steamboat Chamber Resort Association. Tourism experts expect people to make last-minute decisions about vacations this year, she said.

"The positive side of that is, it gives us a little more time to put messaging out there to convince consumers to make that decision," Evans Hall said.

The Chamber isn't changing its marketing practices, she said. Officials plan to bring lodging properties and the Steamboat Ski Area together to discuss implementing discounts and other measures closer to the season, she said.

"I think we have to put all of our heads together to identify some strategies and identify some conclusive kind of hit points of when we should kick those off if we need to," Evans Hall said.

Wirth said Ski Corp. was employing several tactics to draw visitors, such as advertising in foreign markets and aggressively discounting deals for returning guests.

"The folks that I've been interacting with, if they're not concerned, I'm urging them to be concerned," Wirth said, "because I think it would be fair to say there's a very real convergence of the national economic crisis and the upcoming winter season and the impact it can have on our customers."

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