Steamboat Ski Area hopes to build on last year's growth

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Vicky Ho

Steamboat Ski Area skier visit analysis from 2005-06 to 2010-11

— Skier visits to Steamboat Ski Area aren’t what they were in the first half of the past decade, but last winter saw some positive growth.

The release by Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. this week of its 2011 Master Development Plan provides insight into the ski area’s business that hasn’t been available since Intrawest purchased it in March 2007.

For the first time in the past five years, the ski area’s recent annual totals for skier visits are open to public review. What those numbers reveal is that skier visits dropped below 1 million per season each of the past four winters.

However, the numbers also show that last year’s 6.58 percent growth in skier visits to 941,026 well outpaced growth in skier visits both nationally and among other resort members of Colorado Ski Country USA.

Steamboat’s growth translated into 58,115 skier visits more than what the resort had in 2009-10.

“We’re still close to 10 percent behind where the destination business was,” Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. President Chris Diamond said. “We all took a hit. We’re clawing back, and last year we had good growth in that segment and we’re anticipating the same this year.”

Diamond’s concern about the destination visitors who typically spend the most money during an extended vacation here could be reflected in airline traffic into the resort during winter 2010-11. Airline seats into Yampa Valley Regional Airport were off 14 percent and passengers were off 6 percent (about 5,000 people) to 82,514 last winter.

The 2.6 percent growth in skier visits to all Colorado Ski Country USA resorts last winter swells to 3.7 percent when the fantastic four of Vail, Keystone, Breckenridge and Beaver Creek are grafted onto the total. Vail Resorts withdrew from the state’s ski trade association a couple of years ago.

In addition to Steamboat, Colorado Ski Country’s members include Aspen/Snowmass, Telluride, Copper Mountain, Winter Park and Crested Butte, as well as smaller ski areas.

The state’s numbers were helped by the ability of Aspen and Arapahoe Basin to remain open during weekends in June, Colorado Ski Country observed in July.

Steamboat’s growth last year to 941,026 skier visits was on top of one of its lowest skier visit totals in many years after logging 882,911 in winter 2009-10.

Throughout the 1990s, it was routine for Steamboat to host a million skier visits, but the number was typically less than 1.1 million and essentially was flat for a decade. The last time Steamboat chalked up a million skier visits was in 2006-07, when it saw 1.04 million skiers and riders head up the mountain.

“All of Colorado has a way to go to get back to the peak days of ’07-08,” Diamond said.

Winter 2006-07 also saw the highest peak day of the past six seasons, with 16,595 skiers and riders, according to data compiled by Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners, the company that consulted with Ski Corp. on its newly amended master plan.

Skier totals slipped to 955,132 in 2007-08 and 915,235 in winter 2008-09.

Steamboat came close to 900,000 skier visits as long ago as 1986-87, when the final tally was 898,024 and daily lift tickets cost $27, according to Sureva Towler’s book “The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs.”

However, 2007-08 might have been a better winter than the raw numbers suggest. That winter posted nine days when the number of skiers on the mountain was greater than 13,000. That compares to the two preceding million-skier winters when there were a combined 12 days that passed 13,000 skiers on the mountain.

The answer could be found in the unusually short 128-day ski season in 2007-08. The average skiers per day that winter of 7,462 was higher than any year in the past six, including the million-skier winters.

“The business levels are quite comparable. However, the very busy 2007-2008 season was a little bit shorter and experienced days that were typically 500 to 1,000 skiers per day higher than through the bulk of the season,” Ecosign wrote.

Dave Byrd, of the National Ski Areas Association, said the ski season of 2010-11 benefited from early and abundant snow that stimulated Colorado skiers who make informed decisions about whether they want to take on the sometimes trying drive up Interstate 70 from the metro areas to the ski resorts.

“Last year was an interesting year,” Byrd said. “Snowfall was up 27 percent, but it’s a double-edged sword with people’s ability to get to the resorts.”

The record national number of skier visits in 2010-11 nudged past 60 million for the first time, Byrd said.

Colorado’s total skier days approached 12.2 million last ski season, up from 11.86 million in 2009-10. The positive trend is more notable for the fact that the state’s ski areas saw a 5.5 percent decline from winter 2007-08 to 2008-09.

Vail’s group of resorts, which tend to capture destination visitors and Front Range skiers and snowboarders, posted some of the most impressive numbers last winter.

Vail Mountain grew 9.2 percent to an all-time record of 1.75 million skier visits. Breckenridge was up 1.1 percent to 1.63 million, and Keystone was up 7.1 percent to 1.05 million. Beaver Creek visits were down 2.9 percent to 900,000.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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