Aspen biz leaders bullish on ski season so far
ASPEN ” The nation’s economic turmoil hasn’t soured expectations for a solid winter among Aspen business leaders.
No one in tourism-dependent businesses is predicting a record season, but they don’t foresee disaster, either.
“It’s kind of like hope for the best, plan for the worst,” said David Perry, Aspen Skiing Co. senior vice president, mountain division.
The effects of recent cataclysmic events in the stock market are still unknown.
Skico officials made a conservative forecast for this season’s skier visits, the industry’s primary way of measuring business. Perry said they plan on numbers being flat compared to last winter, which was a good season.
The advance bookings are creating an interesting mish-mash for Aspen’s lodging industry. Several sources noted that reservations for January and February look strong right now. December bookings are running behind last year’s pace at this early point of the preseason and March lags a bit.
The North of Nell Condominiums has tapped international business to produce solid preseason numbers, said general manager Joe Raczak. He said his bookings are 17 percent ahead of those made by this point last year.
January and February look strong right now because of travelers from overseas, Raczak said. Early December and March ” which rely more on U.S. travelers ” aren’t as strong. Overall Raczak remains optimistic for the 2008-09 season.
“If it snows, people always show up,” he said.
St. Regis Hotel General Manager Senih Geray said group business there is solid for the ski season. Groups account for about 40 percent of the ski season business at the hotel, one of the largest in Aspen with 179 rooms and 25 residences.
Leisure travel for the first part of December is down about 10 percent compared to this point last season, Geray said. Part of the reason may be earlier World Cup ski races.
The holidays, as usual, will be swamped at the St. Regis. “Christmas week is solidly booked,” Geray said. He said it is still too soon to provide a meaningful assessment of January, February and March.
Both Geray and Raczak said the recent losses in the stock market and the rough condition of some Wall Street firms is bound to have an effect on business in Aspen this winter. The biggest losses on Wall Street have come too recently to be reflected in advance reservations.
Raczak said some of Aspen’s business during the holidays comes from executives who scored a nice Christmas bonus. He wondered if the bonuses will be as plentiful this year.
Geray said it is hard to label Aspen immune from the tough economic times. “It hits everybody’s portfolio,” he said.
Rick Jones, former chair of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors and a current board member, said his personal assessment is that Aspen is better off than many ski resorts but certainly not immune.
Aspen has always been regarded as depression proof but not recession proof, he said. And there are still plenty of wealthy people, despite the “bloodbath” in the stock market over the last two weeks, he said.
“Aspen is the kind of place that attracts money,” Jones noted. The “hyper-wealthy” won’t quit traveling, but Aspen’s middle-class clientele may be forced to cut back, he said.
“This is just a gut feeling more than anything,” Jones said, stressing that he wasn’t representing ACRA’s view.
Jones, the former operator of Aspen Highlands ski area, said he believes Front Range resorts, like Loveland and Winter Park, and Front Range destination resorts, like Breckenridge and Vail, will be hurt more than Aspen by the tough economic times. The other resorts rely more on day skiers from Denver and middle-class travelers.
Skico’s Perry said about one-third of ski season bookings have been made by this point, so the tide could turn one way or another. “The early bookings were looking quite encouraging,” he said.
The number of airline seats into the Aspen market will be about the same as last winter, although the service won’t be exactly the same. Some flights have been eliminated and others added. It’s certain that airfares into Aspen will be higher, although just how much is tough to determine right now, Perry said.
Season pass sales during the early deadline period were running ahead of last season’s pace. Locals, perhaps, still have visions of all that powder. Skico’s pass sales were the best ever last season, Perry said.
After spending his adult life in the ski business, Perry said he is convinced people will continue to ski even during an economic downturn.
“Skiers don’t look at their ski time as discretionary,” he said.
The preseason outlook for the ski industry mirrors that in Aspen. Michael Berry, president of the Denver-based National Ski Areas Association, said the peak periods such as Christmas, President’s weekend and spring break are always busy. The difference between a good season and a great season is the level of business during other parts of the season or “infill,” Berry said. And a prime driver of business during those infill periods is the weather.
If it snows early in November and into December, “you’ll see things fill in very, very nicely,” Berry said. “Where we really feel the impact is if we have a crummy earlier season.”
He doubts that last season’s record 60.5 million skier visits will be topped, but said this winter could still be very strong.
Ski.com, an Aspen-based reservations business that books trips to 80 resorts, reported that its advance bookings at this early stage are slightly behind last year’s pace and on par with 2006-07.
“We’re pleasantly surprised,” said Cris McKinnon, vice president of marketing.
Visits to Ski.com’s website are up significantly even though call volume is flat, she said. That indicates travelers are interested in ski trips and potentially poised to book.
Let it snow, ski industry officials agreed, and it will offset the poor economy.
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