Tim Shorland, who is a subcontractor for Duckels Construction, works on a few last-minute details to get the new promenade at the base of Steamboat Ski Area ready for this week’s Opening Day.

Photo by John F. Russell

Tim Shorland, who is a subcontractor for Duckels Construction, works on a few last-minute details to get the new promenade at the base of Steamboat Ski Area ready for this week’s Opening Day.

Steamboat ski season business forecast positive

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With Opening Day less than a week away, the new promenade at the base of Steamboat Ski Area is nearly ready for visitors.

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Harry and Margaret Miller walk along the new promenade at the base of Steamboat Springs Ski Area on Thursday afternoon. The Steamboat Springs couple wanted to check the new area out even as crews worked on the finishing touches.

— In spite of negative economic indicators, there’s reason to think the 2011-12 ski season will be as good or better than last year’s, which set a record for skier visits nationally.

Lodging property bookings and room rates in western state resort communities are up for November through April, according to a report released Thursday by the Mountain Travel Research Program. As of Oct. 31, bookings were up 10.8 percent and average daily rates increased 3.5 percent, compared with the same time last year.

Mountain Travel Research compiles data from 265 property-management companies in 15 resort communities in Colorado (including Steamboat Springs), Utah, California and Oregon.

Tom Foley, director of operations for Denver-based Mountain Travel Research, said ski season trends are positive despite a more than 6-point drop in the Consumer Confidence Index last month to 39.8. Foley said it’s the lowest rate since April 2009.

According to news reports, consumer confidence averaged 53.9 during the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009.

Foley said the U.S. stock market volatility of the past several months, the federal debt ceiling debate, high national unemployment and Europe’s continuing economic woes haven’t helped. Those concerns, however, haven’t impacted skiers and snowboarders winter plans, he said.

“What we have seen in the last four or five months is this counter-intuitive dedication of our clients to come out and play almost irrespective of what consumer confidence is telling us,” Foley said. “Confidence plummets, but bookings keep going up. Go figure. As analysts, we’re scratching our heads.”

The 2011-12 season starts Wednesday at Steamboat Ski Area with Scholarship Day, the annual event that benefits the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. The official Opening Day is Thursday, when season passes will be valid.

Local optimism

Resort Group Vice President Mark Walker said bookings for the upcoming season at the largest locally owned property-management company in Steamboat are pacing close to the Mountain Travel Research data.

Walker said bookings at Resort Group properties Mountain Resorts, Pioneer Ridge and Hotel Bristol are down in December and March compared with last year. He said January and February are up compared with last year because of group bookings, which provided enough of a boost for the overall season to be positive.

But Walker said Resort Group’s room rates still remain at near-recession levels.

Foley said the 3.5 percent rate increase since last season is the first increase of more than 1 percent since the 2007-08 season. Walker said there’s room for improvement.

“The thing with rates, they can drop overnight, but they take a long time to inch back up,” he said. “They’re not going up as fast as I’d like them to go, in my opinion, in Steamboat.”

That’s not quite the case for Moving Mountains Chalets. Owner Robin Craigen said that bookings at the high-end properties the company manages are “quite a bit” stronger for the 2011-12 season than last year at this time and that rates have improved.

“The irony for us is the more luxurious the home, the better it seems to be booking,” he said.

Craigen said it’s still a challenging environment for Moving Mountains, which continues to grow and now manages 21 private homes as well as 22 residences at One Steamboat Place and Edgemont.

For Moving Mountains, Craigen said business also depends on amenities the company can offer at its properties, such as a private chef or a massage therapist. And he said some properties have been booked because of last season’s snowfall.

Another indicator

Last season, Steamboat’s snowfall reached 433 inches. It was the third time in four years that Steamboat Ski Area reached the 400-inch milestone, and it was the fifth highest snow total since measurements were recorded starting in 1979-80.

Rob Perlman, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. senior vice president of sales and marketing, said Steamboat Central Reservations’ lift ticket and lodging package sales are ahead of where they were at the same time last year.

Walker, Craigen and Perlman declined to provide specific bookings numbers.

“We always do pretty well after a good snow year,” he said. “People always remember there was great skiing and snowboarding, and they want to do it again.”

The National Weather Service predicts another La Niña year, meteorologist Paul Frisbie said. He said the weather phenomenon could lead to lower temperatures and more precipitation for Steamboat.

“Right now, it looks like that pattern is going to persist,” Frisbie said. “I think that you probably will see above-average snowfall but not to the extent you saw last year.”

In addition to a positive snow outlook, Perlman said Ski Corp. is excited about the completion of the heated public promenade and permanent stage projects at the base of the ski area.

The promenade, which stretches from Torian Plum Plaza to One Steamboat Place, is part of the planned $20 million in multiyear improvements at the ski area base paid for in part by property-tax growth in the mountain’s lodging district. The daylighting of Burgess Creek also is part of the improvements and will include nearby amenities such as seating areas and fire pits.

Ski Corp. paid for the stage in Gondola Square, which will host its first event at 1:45 p.m. Saturday with a performance by Champagne Toast, Ski Corp. spokesman Mike Lane wrote in an email. The restrooms beneath the stage likely won’t be finished until Christmas, Lane wrote.

Continuing trend

National Ski Areas Association President Michael Berry said most ski area improvements, while important, aren’t the driving factor in getting visitors on the slopes.

Berry said he’s optimistic based on skier and snowboarder activity in recent years, that 2011-12 could be as good as last season, if not better. He said ski area visits declined 5 percent nationally during the recession in 2008 and 2009 but then rebounded with an all-time record: last winter saw 60.54 million skier visits.

It’s part of a 10-year positive industry trend, Berry said. He called skiing and snowboarding “powerful forces” that lead people to choose them instead of other activities.

“We believe that going skiing and snowboarding is a defining factor in people’s lives and they’ll do what they have to do to get to the mountains,” Berry said.

Foley, of Mountain Travel Research, said the increased bookings and higher room rates are cause for celebration, but he urged caution. He said lower-volume months could slow down the occupancy increase from last year, but it’s not likely to reach a negative figure for the season.

“The early indication is we’re OK,” Foley said. “We have great clientele, and they’re willing to come out and spend, and spend in tough times.”

To reach Jack Weinstein, call 970-871-4203 or email jweinstein@SteamboatToday.com

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