Aspen Skiing Co. expects to lose most international business this winter

From left, Simone Gately, Archie Kennedy and Dennis Gately, all from Australia, ride the Exhibition Chairlift at Highlands in February 2008. Australia has been Aspen's top international market for several years.

Aspen Skiing Co. officials are acknowledging that one of their bread-and-butter markets could be reduced to crumbs this winter.

International travelers comprise between 10 and 20 percent of Skico’s annual skier visits, typically fluctuating due to the strength of the U.S. dollar relative to other currencies and the condition of the world economy. But international travel has been highly restricted by governments around the globe and airlines have drastically cut back on international flights in response to the coronavirus crisis. No change in conditions is anticipated soon.

“January is going to be significantly impacted by our lack of international,” Rich Burkley, Skico senior vice president of strategic planning, said at a community teleconference meeting last week in Aspen. “We’re expecting international business to be about zero.”

The loss of international business is particularly tough because overseas visitors tend to stay longer and ski more days during their vacations.

Skico hasn’t released exact international business numbers publicly for several years for competitive reasons. In the winter of 2006-07, international business accounted for 18% of 1.44 million skier visits, company officials said at the time.

Aspen and Vail are among resorts that have successfully lured international travelers in the past. However, international business plays an important role for the U.S. ski industry overall. A report for the National Ski Areas Association after the 2018-19 season showed that resorts in the Rocky Mountain Region pulled in 1.8% of their skier visits from Canada and 3.1% from other international markets that season. That’s potentially a loss of 5% of the market.

Alterra Mountain Co., a sister company to Aspen Skiing Co., anticipates a “significant decline in volume from all major international markets” for 2020-21, according to Kristin Rust, vice president, communications.

“We do believe that will be back, thanks to years of investment, so we look to stay present in-market, but with a focus on 21-22,” Rust said.

Jeff Hanle, Skico vice president of communications, said January is the biggest month for international business from Skico’s top two overseas markets — Australia and Brazil. No one is expecting anywhere close to traditional numbers.

“We’re moving forward to ramp up our efforts domestically,” Hanle said.

In his presentation at the community meeting, Burkley specifically identified Los Angeles, Houston and Kansas City as “drive markets” that could potentially be tapped for increased business in winter 2020-21.

Ralf Garrison, a longtime travel industry researcher, said there remain many unknowns about travel patterns for the ski season. While a loss in international business seems likely, he noted that summer produced surprises such as the “sheltering at resort” phenomena. Urban dwellers flocked to mountain resorts to escape the novel coronavirus and social unrest. Some of them have decided to stay, fueling a real estate sales boom and school enrollment surge.

The return of demand exceeded expectations this summer, he said.

Garrison is one of the founders of “Insights Collective: Pandemic Economy Think Tank,” a volunteer group of veteran researchers who examine data and provide analysis of travel issues affecting Western resorts.

It’s clear that the virus won’t be contained by winter, he said. The group’s hypothesis is travelers will prefer driving rather than flying and that outdoor activities will still be in demand because of their relative safety.

The time is “rapidly approaching” when overseas skiers and snowboarders with advance bookings will be forced to cancel their plans — just as people with advance bookings tended to cancel for summer, Garrison said.

But re-bookings by a group he labeled “adventuresome, early adapters” paved the way for an unexpected, strong summer for many resorts. His group will watch to see if the same trend holds true for winter.

“The demand side is going to shrink. It’s going to go regionally,” he said, referring to the preference of many people to drive rather than fly.

Ski areas will have a reduced ability to accommodate skiers and riders because of social distancing requirements. That will mean fewer people sharing gondola cabins and lift chairs. As a result, ski areas will have a reduced “COVID capacity” that may be one-third to one-half of normal winter capacity, Garrison said. The question is, will reduced supply be less than the reduced demand?

Aspen Skiing Co. officials are asking themselves the same questions.

“We are really committed to providing as much skiing and snowboarding as we can,” Burkley said at the community meeting. “We know this is not going to be a normal season and we’re going to start asking for patience, flexibility and understanding because there’s going to be a lot of changes and it’s definitely not going to be business as normal.”