Katherine Knapp, of Steamboat Springs, visits with John Evans, who was skiing dressed like Santa Claus last Christmas at the Steamboat Ski Area. Some worry the economy will limit tourist occupancy this year, but others predict the difference won't be noticeable.

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Katherine Knapp, of Steamboat Springs, visits with John Evans, who was skiing dressed like Santa Claus last Christmas at the Steamboat Ski Area. Some worry the economy will limit tourist occupancy this year, but others predict the difference won't be noticeable.

Steamboat's winter tourism industry faces mixed projections

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— A family of four from Dallas could book a five-night December holiday vacation in Steamboat Springs today for $3,727.

That would buy them roundtrip airfare into Yampa Valley Regional Airport on American Airlines and a Dec. 23 to 28 stay in a well-appointed, three-star condominium not far from the gondola at Timber Run.

But facing an uncertain economic outlook as winter approaches, the question for Steamboat businesses that depend on the tourism industry is, "Will they come?" And, "If they come, how much will they have left over to spend on restaurant meals, new ski clothing and gifts?"

With 32 days left before the scheduled beginning of the ski season, Bob Milne, of Steamboat Resorts, is confident the resort will be busy during the holidays. Maybe not as busy as they were in 2007, but busy enough that town will be bustling.

"The thing about the holidays is, it's so busy anyway, even if we're 15 percent down from 98 percent occupancy, it's going to be hard to notice. It's going to feel busy."

But Milne acknowledged there are significant gaps remaining to be filled in February and March 2009.

"It's a struggle because of circumstances that are outside our control. You'd have to live somewhere without newspapers and Internet to think we aren't going to be impacted locally," Milne said.

Milne acknowledged he feels less secure about the balance of ski season beyond January than he does about the holidays.

"Am I nervous? Of course I am. The thing that makes me nervous," Milne said, "is that people aren't calling right now. The phone volume isn't there."

During a Web seminar hosted by the Mountain Travel Research Program, travel consultant Peter Yesawich said he expects travelers to continue to take ski trips this winter. But he expects vacationers from all walks of life to seek discounts.

"Value is king," Yesawich said. "People won't trade out this winter - they will trade down."

Yesawich has been under contract to the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. in the past.

Milne said in his company's experience so far this fall, prospective late-winter vacationers are not particularly price sensitive, they're just hesitant.

When people do call about ski vacations during Presidents' Weekend in February, for example, or the prime weeks in early March, they tend not to take action on vacation plans.

"We haven't been able to close deals," Milne said. "They're still on the fence. They're not 100 percent sure yet."

Airfare turbulence

Steamboat Resorts is taking a proactive approach by telephoning past guests directly to gauge their moods.

"At first, we were a little bit nervous about it, but a lot of our customers have been appreciative," he said.

Milne's property management company books air travel along with lodging for its guests. He is optimistic that airfares will continue to come down.

Andy Wirth said Ski Corp. is in discussions with airlines participating in the Fly Steamboat program about the second round of fare reductions this fall. Wirth is executive vice president for sales and marketing and chief marketing officer for Intrawest, Ski Corp.'s parent company.

Ski Corp. officials recognized in August and September that airfares being quoted for ski season flights to Steamboat were trending high. They worked with the airlines and lodging companies to effect pricing changes, Wirth said.

The response was positive, Wirth said, and he expects to see further fare reductions within the next two to three weeks.

As of Friday, the aforementioned family from Dallas could have booked flights to Steamboat fitting their itinerary on four different airlines. The fares quoted on the Web page of Steamboat Resorts' parent, The Resort Company, ranged from $303 to $503. The best discounts kick in for package fares including lodging, airfare and ski rentals. They vary with the properties, Milne said.

Airfares and packages from Dallas relatively are reasonable because that city is a point of origin for direct flights to YVRA. A family planning a vacation from cities without direct flights could expect to pay $600 to $700 more.

For example, a family of four in Tampa would pay $4,378 to fly American connecting through Dallas to YVRA and stay in the same accommodations at Timber Run. A similar family in Boston could book a similar itinerary and lodging for a package price of $4,520.

Armed with technology

Yesawich said when vacationers travel to mountain destinations like Steamboat this winter, they likely will arrive with a sense that in this economic crisis, they are almost entitled to discounts.

It's a myth, Yesawich said, that people who patronize mountain resorts are far more affluent than middle class.

He thinks even the top 8 percent of those travelers in terms of income ($150,000 or greater and many of them, $250,000 or greater) will aggressively pursue the best value.

"Price is increasingly important," Yesawich said. "Even the more affluent travelers will be more price sensitive. They are now armed with the most potent technology ever to make sure they don't overpay."

The story for the holiday season varies between lodging properties, Milne said, and between property management companies.

He is not surprised that there still are condominiums available at Timber Run for the holidays. That also was the case last season. But the amount of availability is substantially greater than it was at this time in October 2007.

Ironically, Milne said, there already are weeks in January when Timber Run is booked completely full with strong group business.

What remains to be seen is whether hesitant travelers will gain the confidence to book travel for February and March.

Fortunately, Wirth said, there is still time to work on that challenge.

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