Aspen Skiing Co.: Business ‘strong’ despite poor snow
ASPEN – A windstorm on the day of New Year’s Eve and a meager snowpack haven’t completely derailed Aspen Skiing Co.’s business so far this season.
Overall, skier visits are down compared with last season, said Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle, but destination visits – from travelers outside the state – are “on target.” If not for a windy day that closed chairlifts at the four ski areas on Dec. 31, destination visits would be up, he said. Instead, they are flat compared with last season.
The Skico is seeing bigger decreases in pass use.
“We don’t see as many locals out on the slopes as normal,” Hanle said. That’s a result of the snow conditions. The Aspen-area snowpack was just 46 percent of average as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agricultural that conducts the snow survey.
Many Roaring Fork Valley residents prefer powder on their slopes. Powder days have been few and far between, so they have stayed off their boards. When it does snow, they turn out in droves, such as Sunday, when 8 inches graced the four ski areas of Aspen and Snowmass.
Skico has relied on early-season snowmaking and grooming to salvage conditions. The groomed slopes satisfy many visiting skiers and riders.
“We had a strong holiday period,” Hanle said. “It was in line with what we expected and hoped for.”
Skico budgets for increases in destination skier visits each season unless there are extenuating circumstances such as a recession or world conflict. Hanle said he couldn’t supply a percentage of increase for destination skier visits, but they were essentially flat with last season.
There were no days when crowds at Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass exceeded a cumulative 20,000, their historic high mark. The highest single-day total this season was about 17,000 skiers and riders on Dec. 30, Hanle said.
Skico doesn’t release its actual skier visits. Vail Resorts recently reported that skier visits are down about 15 percent through Jan. 2 compared with last season at its four resorts in Colorado and two in California and Nevada.
A travel piece that ran Tuesday in The New York Times reported that many resorts across North America are dealing with a lack of snow. Mad River Glen in Vermont was forced to close for four days earlier this month because of lack of snow, according to the article. The Lake Tahoe basin had a snowpack that was just 9 percent of average on Jan. 1, the piece said. Squaw Valley had four of about 170 trails open.
Hanle said Skico is emphasizing that its conditions are as good or better than most major ski areas in North America, Whistler-Blackcomb being an exception. Skico has 3,800-plus acres open at its four ski areas. “We’ve got to keep the snow message out there,” he said.
Consumers can easily compare conditions around the world at Onthesnow.com.
Business in Aspen and Snowmass in January is “strong” so far, Hanle said. It is being fueled by visitors from Australia and Brazil, who booked trips well before it was evident a winter drought would hit much of the U.S.
He said he is unaware of any bump in the number of Skico customers demanding refunds so far this season because of disappointing snow conditions. The same holds true in the lodging industry, according to Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, a central bookings agency.
“I haven’t had a single cancellation at Stay Aspen Snowmass yet,” he said, and he’s heard of only a handful made directly with properties.
“We’ve lost some of our booking momentum,” Tomcich acknowledged. The calls coming into the reservation center started petering out in mid-December compared to call levels one year ago.
During the 2010-11 winter, there was a surge in last-minute bookings because of good snow conditions, Tomcich noted. This year, pre-season bookings were strong. In January, Aspen and Snowmass properties combined will be about 67 percent occupied even if no more reservations came in, Tomcich said. That is higher than the actual occupancy at the two resorts combined last winter, he said.
The slowing pace of bookings could do damage later in the season. Prospective travelers are keeping their eyes on snowpack totals.
“There are some people who watch it like a hawk and always know what’s going on,” Tomcich said.
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