Weather pattern delivers strong finish to 2015-16 ski season | SteamboatToday.com

Weather pattern delivers strong finish to 2015-16 ski season

NASTAR National Championships take resort through end of March

Dan Smilkstein makes fresh tracks as he leaves the Fish Creek Fall's parking lot and heads into the backcountry Wednesday morning.

— St. Patrick's Day weekend was a top performer for Steamboat Springs lodging properties, which are nearing the home stretch of a ski season that appears to have bounced back from a sub-par December holiday period.

After forecasting that 12,500 people would spend the night here on Saturday, March 19, the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association reported this week that the actual number proved to be 13,300, up a full 2,000 guests from the corresponding Saturday night in 2015.

Greg Koehler, dean of downtown innkeepers, said his 65-room Rabbit Ears Hotel was hopping that weekend.

"The Rabbit Ears sold out both nights," Koehler said.

Mark Walker, president of the Resort Group, which includes the property management companies Mountain Resorts and Pioneer Ridge Management in its family of businesses, said the presence of the NASTAR National Championship, bringing large numbers of citizen ski racers to town March 22 to 27, is putting the finishing touches on the destination ski season.

"We've had an exceptional winter, and weather is a huge factor," Walker said. "We came out of the gates with so much great snow, which helped drive bookings to Steamboat, and then in February, we got a month of sunshine. People who don't live here would rather have sunshine and corduroy (snow) any day.

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"We've been up every single month of the winter, and in March, in particular,” Walker added. “Everything came together this month with more snow, spring breaks that were spread out, and Easter is early. NASTAR takes us right to the end of the month."

The strength of the ski season since the New Year has been welcome news for a local resort industry that experienced a sub-par December holiday season with lodging at 82 percent full the Saturday after Christmas (Dec. 27) and 65 percent full the Saturday (Jan. 3) after New Year's Day.

That compares to 2012-13, when Steamboat bounced back from a low snow December the season before with 94 and 91 percent occupancies in the fifth and sixth weeks of the ski season, and 99 and 98 percent in 2013-14

Ralf Garrison, principal of the destination resort consulting firm DestiMetrics, said ski resorts around the Rockies experienced something similar over the December holidays. He was not speaking about any specific resort, but the mountain destinations as a whole, he said.

"Generally, the whole season started out more slowly, and in the early season, that tended to be more focused," Garrison said. "Christmas is the big indicator, where we've all come to expect double-digit growth (for the last few years). We've come to expect one really strong week if not two. In both cases (Christmas and New Year’s) that did not occur. Most resorts did not sell out, and it was unusual to have that precedent disrupted."

An extra busy Martin Luther King Day weekend, when Steamboat’s bed base was 87 percent full, gave Steamboat a boost in mid-January.

Garrison said his company began noticing in September that while the pace of bookings had increased across the mountain resorts, it was up by a lesser amount than in preceding years.

Over the last year or two, he said, the strength of the U.S. dollar against foreign currencies has taken a bite out of international travel to Rocky Mountain ski resorts. For those guests, who stay the longest and spend the most once they arrive, the cost of a ski vacation was estimated to cost 23 percent more in 2015-16 versus the previous winter, based on currency exchange rates.

And a couple of not-insignificant bumps in the U.S. economy this year dampened the enthusiasm of long-haul domestic travelers.

Resort operators knew what to do once they recognized the trend, Garrison said, focusing more of their marketing efforts on local and regional travelers who don't feel the same "headwind" as people who have to travel longer distances.

"Since then, the season oscillated," Garrison said. "We looked better for awhile, then not so good, then better again. We've had the benefit of good snow — that helps destination as well as regional guests. I think we're likely to end on an uptick. We expect the season to end with an increase over last year but not a double-digit increase as had been true over the last several years."

Walker said one difficult-to-discern factor in his company's occupancy rates this year is that use by owners of condominiums in the rental pool was up 10 percent. They too were drawn by the abundant snow of December and January.

And while owners contribute to the overall resort economy during their stays, they also displace other guests without showing up in the Chamber's lodging barometer.

Koehler said he's not certain if his ski season business will return to pre-recession levels.

"Winters for me are not the slam dunk they used to be at all," he said. "I try to stay in the game, but with the pricing of lift tickets, the ski area kind of takes my customer out of the market. I do have a ton of repeat business in wintertime. I've had clients for going on 25 years. The problem is they're getting older, and their (idea) of a skier's destination is not what it used to be."

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1