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Aspen visitors come and go more quickly

A fair share of Aspen visitors are taking shorter than usual vacations this season, leaving local tourism officials scratching their heads and scrambling to accommodate them.

No one knows exactly why the average length of stay is shrinking, but this much is certain – it’s forcing a dramatic shift in the way Aspen does business.

Everyone from reservationists who try to lock telephone callers into trips to property management firms that must whip residences back into shape to the Aspen Skiing Co.’s ticket sellers are affected.

“People are taking shorter vacations and more of them,” said Kitty Boone, Skico vice president of marketing.

In response, Aspen Central Reservations is appealing to members to target people looking for a shorter stay. It’s an effort, president Bill Tomcich acknowledged, to try to salvage a lackluster season for the central reservations business.

“The single largest challenge this season has been to accommodate requests for shorter stays or long weekends,” said Tomcich.

In a letter sent to 45 member properties Jan. 21, Tomcich explained that additional business was ripe for the picking – so long as properties dropped the minimum number of nights they allowed vacationers to spend.

“We are unable to give our guests what they want – shorter stays,” Tomcich wrote to members. “Lack of snow is no longer an issue, and availability of airline seats is one challenge our folks are well trained to deal with.

“Like last month, it is the aggressive minimum stay requirements of many properties which is turning away more business than any other single cause,” he wrote. Properties respond Tomcich said year-to-date bookings made by ACR were down 14.6 percent “and headed south” at the time he wrote the letter. He said ACR, which tends to handle inquiries from people who are considering an Aspen vacation for the first time, was turning down more business than in prior years from people who want shorter stays.

While he’s not ready to declare a dramatic turnaround, Tomcich was optimistic about the re-sponse.

Several properties responded to the letter by dropping the minimum required stay. As a whole, the average minimum requirements dropped from 4.3 nights prior to the letter to 3.1 nights, according to Tomcich.

That’s not a decision property managers make lightly. Joe Raczak, general manager of North of Nell, said shorter stays are tougher on a staff because it requires more frequent work getting a property prepared for new guests.

Nevertheless, he shortened his minimum stay requirement to assist ACR and to fill in a few holes in his bookings.

The North of Nell, like many Aspen properties, enjoys a high percentage of return business. Raczak said the average length of stay hasn’t dropped noticeably among his returning customers, but he is aware that’s an emerging trend in the industry. Loss of the Front Rangers ACR’s Tomcich said the average length of stay for a tourist booking through his organization has dropped from 4.5 nights last season to 4.4 nights this winter, but the change is much more significant than the figure suggests.

Aspen has lost a significant share of its Colorado business this year, Tomcich said. In-state tourists were traditionally the ones who stayed for short periods.

So, the loss in trip length indicates to him that out-of-state visitors are staying for shorter amounts of time.

The popularity of long weekends and short trips is showing up in the United Express flight data. The Thursday flights coming into Aspen from Denver this season have become extremely popular, second only to Saturdays.

Interestingly, seats on flights headed to Denver on Thursdays remain nearly empty.

“They’ll do phenomenal load factors coming in and be almost empty going out [to Denver],” Tomcich said. Eye on international guests While ACR’s statistics haven’t yet reflected a great change in the average length of stay, the Skico’s figures more dramatically show the trend for shorter trips.

Company surveys show the average length of stay has dropped from 6.3 nights to 4.9 nights in recent seasons, according to Boone. It’s a trend that’s shown up for the last five years or so, she said.

With people staying for a shorter time and trying other areas, Aspen runs the risk of loyal customers finding a place they like better. Tomcich noted that a place like Aspen probably faces greater competition for people who take shorter trips.

The diversity of Aspen’s four ski areas is particularly appealing to people who have a lot of time to explore. But for folks with only a long weekend, smaller resorts like Crested Butte and Telluride suddenly become more appealing, Tomcich said.

On the other hand, Boone noted with more bodies actually making up the clientele list due to shorter stays, the Skico has additional opportunities to sell lift tickets.

Nevertheless, the declining length of stay for domestic travelers makes the Skico’s growing international market even more appealing. International guests tend to stay for eight nights – and they come to ski, Boone said. That figure is holding steady while domestic vacations shrink.

The international market accounts for about 20 percent of the Skico’s sales.


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