ASPEN - Aspen Skiing Co. might not be able to dig itself out of an early-season hole for the number of people hitting the slopes, but recent history shows this winter still can be a money maker.
Skico reported an 8 percent decrease in skier and rider visits as of the end of December. The company faces an uphill battle to turn that big of a deficit around. The key will be whether it's able to attract a sufficient number of international guests and other destination visitors - those who take an overnight trip - to salvage the season.
The ski industry's performance usually is measured by "skier visits" - how many skiers and riders pay to hit the slopes for a full or part day. If skier visits are up, it's assumed the resort operator had a good winter. When visits are down, the assumption is the performance was poor.
It's not that simple. Aspen Skiing Co.'s visits were down about 24,500, or 1.7 percent, last season. However, the amount it paid the U.S. Forest Service for use of public lands at Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass was up 6.5 percent, or nearly $100,000.
The Forest Service uses a complex formula to determine how much a ski area owes for public lands, but when the fee is up, it indicates that Skico's revenues also are up.
Skico was able to increase revenues last season because destination and international business remained strong even though overall skier visits dropped, according to company spokesman Jeff Hanle. Local skiers hit the slopes less often because of mediocre snow conditions, he confirmed, so total skier visits dropped.
Skico's business hasn't bounced back to prerecession levels, but revenue has recovered more quickly than skier visits.
Skico paid $1,674,555 to the Forest Service in 2007-08 compared to $1,627,795 last winter, according to the federal agency. That indicates that revenues were down about 3 percent last year from the pre-recession level.
Skier and rider visits are down a heftier amount. Skico had 1,444,647 visits in 2007-08 compared to 1,336,463 last season. That's a deficit of 7.5 percent.
Skico's revenues bottomed out in 2009-10 and started climbing. The company's skier visits bottomed out in 2008-09 but have been up and down since.
While Skico officials are reluctant to talk about the company's business performance, Hanle acknowledged that growth in international visitors has been a key to the revenue growth.
Skico and the lodging industry covet international travelers because they tend to stay longer. That means they buy more lift tickets, more lessons and more meals than most other visitors.
Representatives of Aspen's lodging industry said they saw a drastic drop in the number of visitors from Australia in January. Aussies have given the area a big boost in recent years.
On the other hand, February occupancy looked promising. As of the end of January, bookings for February were up 20 percent over last year for Snowmass Village and even with last year for Aspen, according to the Mountain Travel Research Program.
Hanle said increased revenues doesn't guarantee profits for Skico. Increased costs, workers'-compensation payments, health care and water for snowmaking are all expenses that eat up revenues, he noted.