Aspen’s winter outlook looking brighter |

Aspen’s winter outlook looking brighter

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Winter X Games weekend will be a virtual sellout in Aspen and Snowmass, and the resort is posting stronger bookings for the rest of the winter than a sampling of its competitors. That, at least, was part of an upbeat report delivered to the Aspen Chamber Resort Association on Tuesday.

Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort’s liaison to the airline industry, briefed the ACRA board of directors on the local air travel picture and reservations trends. The snapshot of winter business held plenty of bright spots.

Occupancy during the X Games, which takes place Thursday through Sunday at Buttermilk, will be higher than it was during the event last winter, according to Tomcich.

“I would say it’s going to be one of the busier weekends we’ve seen in the past two years,” he said.

Helping boost interest is the SnowSports Industries of America Snow Show taking place this weekend in Denver. As many as 18,000 people are expected at the ski industry gathering, and David Perry, Aspen Skiing Co. senior vice president, said he was initially bummed that the show’s dates conflict with the X Games.

But, he said, a lot of the attendees are coming to Aspen before or after the Games, and some are coming during Winter X, even as the Denver event is in full swing.

“It’s actually turned out to be to our advantage,” he said.

For those who don’t catch the action in person, it will be broadcast live on a giant screen erected in Denver’s Skyline Park, just off the 16th Street Mall, to coincide with the Snow Show.

The Aspen Skiing Co. reported its business was up 2.5 to 5 percent through the holidays, but lodging reservations were down 4 percent in December, according to Tomcich. Future bookings made during the month of December, however, were up 44 percent, compared to last year, he said.

“February is pacing ahead of last year right through President’s [Day] week,” Tomcich reported.

According to a comparison of 12 ski resorts in the West, most of them in Colorado, Aspen and Snowmass are tracking ahead of their competitors in terms of bookings, Tomcich added. Denver-based Mountain Travel Research Program, or MTRiP, prepares the comparisons, though it doesn’t identify the other resorts in relation to the numbers they’ve posted.

As of Dec. 31, bookings in Aspen were far higher than those of the other resorts in the comparison, Tomcich said. Snowmass was at No. 3. One other resort was ahead of both Aspen and Snowmass for the month of February. March numbers, as of Dec. 31, put Snowmass and another resort in the top spot, followed by Aspen and another resort tied at No. 2.

“That said, there’s a lot of rooms that can be filled in late February and early March,” Tomcich said.

Occupancy in Aspen for March was only at 29 percent as of Dec. 31, he noted.

How reservations will shape up, though, grows increasingly difficult to predict, given the trend toward last-minute bookings. Stay Aspen Snowmass saw late bookings flood in for both Wintersköl weekend in Aspen and last week’s Gay Ski Week, Tomcich said.

“Day over day, we can pick up 50 reservations. It’s pretty amazing,” agreed John Speers, general manager of The Little Nell hotel and an ACRA board member.

Tomcich also recapped the improving air-travel picture at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, where a 10 percent increase in the total available airline seats coming into the resort this winter translates to more than 216,000 seats – the most the airport has seen since 1997-98, he said.

The number of passengers coming through the airport in December was up 25.5 percent, and the number of canceled flights was minimal. The inbound “load factor” – how full the commercial airliners coming into the airport were – was up nearly 10 percent in December, at 79 percent.

Delta, Frontier and United all serve the local airport.

“During the month of December, for the first time ever in terms of load factor, Frontier actually outperformed United,” Tomcich said.

More visitors and local residents are using the airport – the result of competitive fares, increased airline reliability and the high cost of renting a car in Denver, among other factors, Tomcich said.

Among the other tidbits to emerge during Tomcich’s presentation:

• Now that Republic Airways owns both Frontier Airlines and Midwest Express, expect the two brands to merge eventually, whether it’s under one name or the other, or something altogether new, Tomcich said.

• The Dash-8 has flown its last commercial flight out of Aspen for the foreseeable future. Mesa Airlines, which has filed for bankruptcy, is no longer flying the turboprop in and out of Aspen for United, according to Tomcich. This winter, the resort is being served exclusively by the CRJ-700 jet, operated by SkyWest Airlines for all three airlines that serve the local airport.

• SkyWest is looking to fly the CRJ-700 into Eagle County Airport, which lengthened its runway last summer. That could make Eagle an alternate destination when planes can’t get into Aspen, Tomcich said. “That is welcome news, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

• Aspen’s snow conditions held up well during the dearth of snowfall that followed the holidays, finally ending with last weekend’s snowstorm. “I didn’t hear a single complaint from our guests,” said Warren Klug, general manager at the Aspen Square Condominium Hotel. They loved the blue skies and corduroy. Klug said he admonished employees to keep complaints about the lack of powder to themselves. “When you live here, it’s easy to get jaded,” he said.

Tomcich said he heard tales of ski vacationers who walked out of other, nearby resorts because of the poor snow conditions and headed for Aspen/Snowmass.

• Reality check: Despite the positive signs to be gleaned from reservations and increased airline service, Tomcich put things in perspective: Aspen/Snowmass may improve on last winter’s numbers, but an uptick in business doesn’t mean it’s anywhere close to matching pre-recession levels. The Skico, too, has acknowledged the bar has been lowered. Skier visits were up 2.5 to 5 percent through the holidays, compared to last winter, but last winter’s holiday business was down 8 percent.

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