Aspen Skiing Co. counting on foreign visitors for winter business | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Skiing Co. counting on foreign visitors for winter business

Scott CondonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Contributed imageThis architect's rendering shows what the Elk Camp Restaurant will look like when completed for the 2012-13 season. The restaurant will be connected to the top terminal of the Elk Camp Gondola at Snowmass ski area. The $13 million, two-year project was started this summer.

ASPEN – International visitors likely will be the salvation of ski season business again this winter, Aspen Skiing Co. officials told a packed house Friday at the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s annual luncheon.”International still seems to be a good market for us,” said John Rigney, Skico vice president of sales and special events. The weak dollar, he noted, is enticing foreign skiers to book trips early.”Whether we like it or not, the U.S. is for sale [for people] from Australia and Brazil – two of our biggest markets,” Rigney said at the luncheon at the Sundeck Restaurant. The international business could be more vital than ever with the uncertainty hanging over the U.S. economy. The stock market has been on a roller coaster ride, unemployment remains high and consumer confidence is sagging. It remains to be seen how that will affect travel plans of U.S. residents.The Skico sales team has spent 500 days on the road in 18 countries and 49 U.S. cities this summer trying to spur business. The Skico team often collaborates with representatives of the Aspen/Snowmass Village lodging community, according to Rigney.It’s too soon to accurately assess how the winter is shaping up, said David Perry, Skico senior vice president, mountain division. The Skico’s goal is to continue climbing back from the recession. Skier visits were up about 2 percent last season.”We’re always optimistic in this town,” Perry said.Reservations on the books as of Aug. 15 indicate the Christmas and New Year’s holiday period is filling in nicely, as expected, and the first half of January remains strong. That reflects the surge in business from Australia and Brazil, Perry said. Late January and the first half of February lag behind last season’s early bookings pace.Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said Aspen and Snowmass must hustle especially hard for their business this year because of all the competition. There are 3,000 additional pillows at western ski resorts this season, he said, and many resorts have worked hard to secure greater amounts of airline service.”I’ve gotta tell ya, it’s tough out there,” Kaplan said.Nevertheless, Aspen/Snowmass is “the brand leader,” he said, so the Skico will compete on its terms – which means promoting high-quality, authentic experiences that renew the mind, body and spirit.If business is flat or down this year it won’t be for lack of commercial airline seats. The flights offered by United, Frontier and American Airlines provide the most seats in and out of Aspen since the 1997-98 winter, Kaplan said. Now the trick is to fill those seats.Skico’s presentation featured an interesting short film that showed the placement of the towers for the new Tiehack chairlift. The high-speed, four-passenger chair is a $7 million investment by Skico. It will reduce the riding time from 18 minutes on the two old chairlifts to 7 minutes on the new chairlift.The Skico also showed the progress it is making on the $6 million remodel of the Merry-Go-Round Restaurant at Aspen Highlands. A picture taken in June showed everything but the shell of the restaurant had been removed. To say it was gutted is an understatement, Kaplan said prior to the luncheon.The Skico also embarked this summer on a two-year project to build a new restaurant at Elk Camp. The $13 million project will take two years to complete. Mountain restaurants have been a focus as a way to get customers to stay on the mountain for meals, and spend more.While ski season was the focus of the meeting, Dr. Kirk Johnson, chief curator of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, stole the show with slides about the Ice Age fossil dig in Snowmass Village.An army of volunteers was able to unearth almost 5,000 bones and fossils during a 50-day period that ended in July, Johnson said. He called Ziegler Reservoir near Snowmass Village the greatest high-altitude Ice Age fossil site in the world. It’s almost unfair that Aspen/Snowmass has yet another world-class amenity, he quipped.scondon@aspentimes.com