A millennium bust or happy holidays? | AspenTimes.com

A millennium bust or happy holidays?

Aspen and Snowmass are staring at a millennium bust that threatens to get even worse unless more snow falls – and fast, according to local tourism officials.

“I think it’s going to be as quiet around here as we’ve seen in years,” said John Norton, Aspen Skiing Co. chief operating officer.

Preliminary occupancy reports for tourist accommodations bear out Norton’s suspicions.

As of Dec. 2, reports compiled by the Snowmass Village Resort Association showed a 46 percent occupancy level for the week of Dec. 18-25 compared to a three-year average of 69 percent.

For Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, the anticipated level was 56 percent compared to the three-year average of 90 percent.

Jeff Tippett, SVRA’s vice president of operations, said those figures could swing wildly – one way or another – when the report is updated tonight.

The latest report compiled by Aspen Chamber Resort Association showed current reservations would produce an occupancy level in the mid-50s, about the same as last year, for the week of Dec. 18-25. No figure was available as of Tuesday from ACRA for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, traditionally the busiest period of the ski season.

Aspen and Snowmass aren’t the only resorts suffering the holiday blues. In fact, the entire travel and leisure industry in the United States and abroad is suffering what’s been labeled the “millennium bust.”

National media have been filled with reports about parties being canceled, airplanes and cruise ships going unfilled and hotels drastically slashing prices because people are staying home for the millennium.

Skico President and CEO Pat O’Donnell was holding out hope that savvy travelers would decide at the last minute to take advantage of reduced prices and lower minimum stay requirements at hotels and hit the road for the millennium. He figured Aspen-Snowmass would take advantage of some of those last-minute travelers.

But he said Tuesday that hope is fading for his company and almost the entire ski industry for adding business for the important holiday period.

“Right now, unless we get some snow, it’s not looking very good,” said O’Donnell. “From talking to my counterparts all across the West, the snow is pretty scarce.”

SVRA’s Tippett said the West in general and Aspen-Snowmass in particular need snow in the next few days to avoid cancellations – during the holidays and later in the season. He noted that reservations are currently strong for January and February.

“If snow materializes, we’ll have a good season. If it doesn’t, we won’t,” he said.

The implications of below-average snowfall during the holidays is immense. Last year, tourists went home after the holidays and reported below-average snowfall. Perceptions of poor conditions persisted even when snowstorms started coming right around New Year’s Day. The result was an 8.2 percent drop in skier and snowboard rider visits.

In addition, the holiday period is so important that any drop in sales can dictate the entire season. Starting slow puts ski area operators in a hole they cannot dig out of, said the Skico’s Norton. “You want to start with a bang,” he said.

O’Donnell said there is no reason to push the panic alarm yet, since reservations are strong later in the season. But he said the season is developing as a replay of last winter.

“It’s going to be a marketing challenge when the snow does fall,” said O’Donnell.

While holiday business probably won’t be up to snuff, “millennium bust” is somewhat of a misnomer, contended Bill Tomcich, president of Aspen Central Reservations. Aspen will still “fill up at some point” between Christmas and New Year’s, he said.

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