Changing with the tourism trade
When it comes to business, not all statistics are created equal. Howie Mallory, executive vice president of Community Banks of Colorado in Aspen, said he gauges tourism through hotel occupancies and enplanements, the number of people who board airplanes bound for Aspen.
“If you don’t have the people coming here, you don’t have them coming to the shops and restaurants,” he said.
By those measures, Aspen’s economy showed signs of recovery in 2003. The number of enplanements from December through April was up 12 percent over the prior season, according to Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, the central reservations booking business. That was the best showing for a ski season since 1999-2000, he said.
July statistics are even more impressive. Passenger traffic in and out of Aspen airport was up nearly 9 percent for the month from last year. There were 33,773 passengers flying in and out on commercial aircraft this year compared to 31,042 last year.
“This is remarkable considering our [airline] capacity decreased by 17 percent year over year,” Tomcich said. United Express, the airport’s biggest carrier, actually reduced its capacity of flights in and out of Aspen but “improved” its schedule with better flight times, Tomcich explained.
“I honestly didn’t think that they would be able to carry 9 percent more passengers with 17 percent less capacity – to hold their own would have been an enviable achievement,” he said.
The number of people staying in tourist accommodations also shows signs of improvement. Richard McLennan, general manager of the St. Regis hotel, Aspen’s largest, said his occupancy percentage was up 20 points in June from the same month last year. For June through August, bookings are up between 10 and 15 percent.
The occupancies still don’t match 2000, which was one of the best years ever, he noted.
The ski season also provided a glimmer of hope, until the war against Iraq started. David Perry, Skico senior vice president, said the Skico was on track “for a decent year” until it hit the hurdles of the war and a weak economy.
The company ended up with a 3.5 percent gain in skier visits from the poor performance of 2001-02. Half the gain was from locals using their season passes more; the other half was from more destination skiers from out of the valley – the people who pay to come to town.
The weakest link for the Skico is Snowmass, where visits – the number of skiers and snowboarders who buy a full- or partial-day lift ticket – are down 22 percent since the peak season of 1997-98.
Nevertheless, Perry is impressed with what he has seen of the upper Roaring Fork Valley since he took a position with the Skico about one year ago. He believes it is poised for an impressive performance if there are no disasters like terrorism or war or drought.
Perry acknowledged that the retail sector may have its problems, but it is so much more diverse and attractive than places like Vail and Whistler, the giants in the ski industry.
Stay Aspen Snowmass’ Tomcich said the local tourism industry has an interesting mix of statistics staring it in the face. There is a clear trend in that 20 of the 41 lodging properties in Aspen that offer online bookings are faring better than those that don’t offer the service. Customers are displaying more savvy in handling their own reservations. They tend to go for shorter trips and plan them at the last minute.
“It’s almost like a new economy, if you will,” he said.
The 50 percent of the properties that offer online bookings represent 75 percent of Aspen’s bed base, so Aspen is in a good position to take advantage of that trend.
Several small lodges are banding together to improve their visibility in Aspen. The “Gems of Aspen” idea, first tried in the 1990s, has been revived to make sure 12 small, family-owned lodges aren’t overlooked by consumers.
“We can do some big marketing that we could never do solo,” said David Ledingham, manager of the Snow Queen Lodge, one of the participants in the Gems.
The marketing direction that Aspen took in the late 1980s and into the 1990s “scared away” the middle class, according to Ledingham. “They just don’t think they can afford to come here,” he said.
The Gems will have their own Web site with links to individual properties. Ledingham said a presence on the Internet is vital. He is scrambling to make it possible to book a vacation online at the Snow Queen.
Lodge operators are facing a variety of changing factors that are rocking the industry. Along with short stays, last-minute bookings and Internet use, they are facing tougher times with rates. With reservations booked through Stay Aspen Snowmass, the average dollar amount collected by lodges per room night dropped from almost $225 two summers ago to $217 last summer, Tomcich noted. This year through July 31 it was down to $212.75. Properties are working harder to earn less money.
Nevertheless, Tomcich is “cautiously optimistic” that tourism is on the mend. He noted that the ski industry’s banner years of 1992-93 and ’93-94 followed the slump caused by the first Middle East war. Good snow next winter could bring similar results.
“I believe there has to be a rebound,” said Tomcich.
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