Shops offer high-end ski gear as alternative to in-flight luggage

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— Aviation consultant Mike Boyd describes the purchase of an airline ticket this winter as a mere down payment on the flight.

By the time that travelers have paid for preferred seating, and in some cases even bottled water, the flight will cost more than the ticket price, he said. Even more important to vacationing skiers is the premium they will pay to bring as many as four pieces of luggage with them, Boyd added. That could cost anywhere from $130 to $240, he estimated.

"At Airline B, the first bag might be $15, the second $50, and the third $125. That's $190 if they count the boot bag and the ski bag as one. At another airline that counts them separately, it might be $240," Boyd said.

For vacationers already hesitant to book vacations because of the economic crisis, luggage fees are just one more deterrent, he said.

"The average person is going to say, 'This is a major increase in the cost of going on vacation,'" Boyd said. "It's an opportunity for FedEx."

Boyd, whose company, The Boyd Group, is based in Evergreen, spoke during a Web seminar hosted by the Mountain Travel Research Program this week. Boyd predicts skiers and snowboarders still will take vacations this winter and that things will begin to loosen up soon after the New Year.

However, he said that looking ahead to 2009, vacation destinations can anticipate reductions in airline capacity while fares increase at least 15 percent.

"Most of the hit will be on the low end and maybe even on business travelers," he said.

Officials at the Steamboat Ski Area anticipated two months ago that ski vacationers might feel a pinch on luggage fees this winter. In August, Steamboat announced a program it calls Bags Fly Free. Vacationers who book an air-inclusive package through Steamboat Central Reservations by Nov. 17 will receive a pre-paid cash card from American Express worth $25 for every booked airline seat. The amount is meant to offset the typical fee for a checked piece of luggage.

Boyd sees an opportunity for express shippers this winter, but ski rental shops already are pouncing.

Bob Dapper, the Steamboat-based director of mountain operations for Christy Sports, said the 30 mountain stores in the company's 42-store chain are aggressively telling ski vacationers to forget about hauling their gear through airports this winter.

"We are letting people know this is the year to leave your stuff at home," Dapper said. "Leave it at home in '09."

Christy Sports has its own Internet-based reservations center. The company is reaching out to its database of customers through e-mails and mailings to promote the expansion of its ride-to-buy program, putting top-of-the-line demo packages into its rental fleet for $50 a day.

"A lot of people are happy to pay $50 a day," Dapper said. "They don't ski as much as they used to. If they ski four out of five days, that's $200."

The problem with shipping your skis or snowboard ahead of your vacation, Dapper said, is that vacationers have to have a place to send them. His company quietly is helping out customers by allowing them to ship directly to the stores.

Ski area spokesman Mike Lane said travelers booking ski vacation packages through Central Reservations can choose to ship their skis ahead and ask to have them delivered to their lodging property. Christy Sports' Door2Door vans will do the same.

The ski area's rental shop, Steamboat Ski & Sport, is offering the promise of new rental equipment to encourage vacationers to rent their ski gear instead of paying extra airline fees, Lane said.

Dapper is optimistic Christy Sports' high-end rental program will help offset a projected downturn in retail sales.

"Retail is going to be down somewhat this winter," Dapper said. "Trying to guess how much is a waste of time. But sales certainly won't be up."

Because the margin on rentals is higher than it is on a new pair of $1,200 skis and bindings, Dapper knows that making airline luggage fees work to his stores' advantage could help them weather the economic storm.

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