ASPEN - The lack of early-season snow and a variety of other factors might make it tough for Aspen and Snowmass Village to match last ski season's performance, some business leaders said Tuesday.
Fewer flights will arrive at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport this winter compared with last year after Frontier Airlines pulled out of the market. Many consumers remain skittish with the prospects of the federal government's fiscal-cliff dilemma.
And then there's the snow issue. Travel-industry experts say consumers have a case of "snow hangover" from last season. They remember poor conditions from 2011-12. They are watching and waiting to see if it snows before they book a vacation.
"I would say it's undeniable," said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen-Snowmass, a central bookings agency. He also feels it's a "realistic expectation" that the phones will start ringing when the snow falls.
The heart of the season looks solid, Tomcich said. Mardi Gras and Presidents Day week are spread out to create a strong period in February. Early January and early March are also strong periods, he said. Pre-Christmas bookings are down significantly.
The Denver-based Mountain Travel Research Program said reservations on the books for November through April are down nearly 4 percent based on a sample of 260 property-management companies in 16 mountain destination resorts. The sample was taken in Colorado, Utah, California and Oregon. Aspen is among the towns in the sample.
Chuck Frias, a partner in Frias Properties, which manages hundreds of condominiums in and around Aspen's core, said business boomed last summer, but that didn't carry over into winter.
"It's been consistently down," he said of the booking rates this year compared with the same points last year. "December has been down probably the most of all the months."
Frias believes the uncertainty surrounding the presidential election, the still-struggling economy, fewer airline seats and the snow have all contributed to reduced bookings. Even when it starts snowing, it will be tough to match last winter's numbers, he said.
"I don't know that we've got potential to see a significant uptick," Frias said. "If we were down something less than 10 percent, I'd be happy."
International travelers have been Aspen's salvation for the past several years. Visitors from Australia, in particular, have blanketed Aspen in January, but that could be changing this season. Joe Raczak, general manager of the North of Nell Condominiums, said bookings drop off during the second half of the month because of fewer guests from Australia.
"For some reason they're not pulling the trigger," he said. "I'm concerned for us and town because international guests have carried us the last couple of years."
Raczak said his overall booking patterns thus far are very unusual. Reservations for February are up 40 percent over last year, which was a bad month. But all the other months of the winter are down at North of Nell. December is down 31 percent, January is off 11 percent, and March is down 28 percent.
The numbers are bleak considering North of Nell has such strong return business, at about 90 percent.
"I think people have reservations about reservations," Raczak said.
He noted that airfares into Aspen have soared during many parts of the ski season because of less competition. When a family traveling from New York City is looking at an airfare cost of several thousand dollars, "you have to make sure there's snow," he said.
Raczak believes the phones will ring when it snows. However, he says he intuitively feels that mid-December is a sort of "cutoff date." If ski resorts haven't received significant snow by then, tourists will look to make other vacation plans.
Tomcich said he believes overall seat capacity into the Aspen airport will be down a little more than 10 percent from the five-year average. United Express will operate between eight and 11 flights daily between Aspen and Denver and from one to five direct flights from four major markets.
American Airlines will operate two flights daily, one from Dallas and one from Los Angeles, between Dec. 13 and April 1.
"United continues to get a lot more sophisticated with how they manage their capacity, and because of the high frequency of flights they operate here, they have the ability to flex their schedules based on actual demand more so than ever in the past," Tomcich wrote in an email.
Aspen Skiing Co. has treaded water for the past couple of years. Skier visits were up 1.7 percent in 2010-11 and down 1.8 percent last season.
"Bring on the snow, and we think we'll have a good year - better than last year," said Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle. The company has budgeted for an increase in business this year.
Skico logs between 1.3 million and 1.5 million skier visits annually. A study by Economics Research Associates as part of the Aspen Area Community Plan said "that indicates some 200,000 individual skiers were attracted to the area, in addition to local resident skiers."
So if 200,000 out-of-state travelers are convinced snow conditions are good enough, look for a decent season.