‘Four years away’ from being tops in North America?
November 21, 2006
Steve Sewell likes things low-key. The new mountain manager at Snowmass Ski Area likes media scrutiny and controversy about as much as skiers like rocks underfoot.So it came a surprise when Sewell said recently that he thinks Snowmass can soon topple Vail and Whistler-Blackcomb as the top resort in North America in the annual ski area rankings in publications like Ski magazine.”That is my goal, to see Snowmass No. 1 in the rankings in 2009,” said Sewell. “We can do it.”
It’s not just a personal quest for Sewell. Snowmass – a sprawling ski area that offers something for everyone among its 3,100 acres – is where the Aspen Skiing Co. earns its bacon and has the most potential to increase business.”All our primary focus is on Snowmass,” said Pat O’Donnell, who retired as Skico president and CEO Nov. 13. O’Donnell planned to stay at the helm through this season, but he decided everything was running so well that he could hand the company over early to Mike Kaplan, who had been the second in command.O’Donnell said he was optimistic about the Skico’s future as well as that of the ski industry. Skier and snowboarder visits, a measure of lift ticket sales, have climbed each of the last four seasons after a roller-coaster performance in the late 1990s and early this century.A lean snow year in 1999-2000, combined with the unfounded Y2K scare and a post-September 11 economic malaise sent Skico’s lift ticket sales plummeting. “We were getting body-slammed year-in, year-out,” O’Donnell said.But good snow, a strong national economy and effective marketing helped reverse the Skico’s fortunes in the years since. Last year it logged 1,444,795 visits at its four ski areas. But there’s more work to do. That mark is still 7 percent behind the company’s record season of 1997-98.
The Skico’s opportunities to increase its business are limited. Aspen Mountain topped 400,000 skier visits in 1987-88, but in recent years has hovered around 320,000. Its size and predominantly tough terrain limit its growth potential.Aspen Highlands has been on a roll in recent years, thanks to the universally acclaimed expert terrain in and around Highland Bowl. It hit 193,342 visits last year, and Skico officials think 200,000 is realistic.Buttermilk has found its niche as the invaluable home of the ESPN Winter X Games. Any visits it picks up are gravy.Which leaves Snowmass. The company is pumping tens of millions of dollars into the resort on the gamble that it can recover and eventually exceed the skier and snowboarder visits of the record season. Snowmass had 768,007 visits last season, or about 53 percent of the Skico’s total. In the record season of 1997-98 it sold 884,066 tickets, or about 13 percent more than last season.To return to the glory days, the Skico is building the bed base at Snowmass. Its multimillion-dollar investment in Base Village will include a Little Nell hotel and a Westin, along with condominium projects designed to provide “hot beds” for tourists who come and ski for a week or so, then turn the keys over to the next visitors.When it is completed in four years, Base Village will add nearly 359 condominium-hotel units and an additional 257 condo-hotel rooms in the Westin and Little Nell properties. They will add roughly 1,100 bedrooms to Snowmass Village.In addition, the Skico is pumping $50 million, phased over several years, into new chairlifts, restaurants and other amenities on the slopes. The centerpiece of the on-mountain improvements is a new $13 million gondola, scheduled to open Dec. 16, from the base of Fanny Hill to the bottom of the Elk Camp chairlift.
Imagine Snowmass as a slumbering giant. Is the addition of the new Elk Camp Gondola enough to wake him up, or will it take more?Jim Crown, managing partner for the Chicago family that owns the Skico, doesn’t expect Snowmass to reach its potential this season. “We’re four years away,” he said.A new Sam’s Knob restaurant is planned next summer, along with the possibility of a high-speed chairlift replacing the painfully slow Sheer Bliss on the eastern side of the Big Burn.Crown and Kaplan said they expect Snowmass to gradually build its business as construction progresses. Kaplan noted that Snowmass increased its skier visits last season “in more difficult operating conditions.” It didn’t have the gondola, and the Fanny Hill base was a massive construction zone.The construction zone still exists, although skiers and riders will have safe passage through the yawning pit of Base Village to the base of the new gondola.”The gondola is going to change the mountain right away,” Kaplan said.Now Snowmass will have two high-speed chairlifts out of its primary base. The six-passenger Village Express chairlift was added last season, and delivers skiers and snowboarders to the top of Sam’s Knob in less than 10 minutes. The gondola can haul an additional 2,600 passengers per hour to the base of Elk Camp.Most Snowmass customers used to flock to the Big Burn, the massive, high-elevation pod of intermediate trails on the ski area’s western side. Now the flock will be more evenly divided, with some customers taking the new gondola to Elk Camp, on Snowmass’ eastern edge.”I think what the gondola will do is spread the crowds out,” said Sewell. He welcomes the change because the Elk Camp and Alpine Springs areas were “underutilized.”
The Skico brass picked Sewell to oversee Snowmass for its “renaissance.” Former Snowmass General Manager Doug MacKenzie stepped into a position as special projects manager and anticipates retiring after another season or so. During seven years as manager of Aspen Mountain, Sewell impressed Kaplan and earned the opportunity to move to Snowmass. Peter King, a 33-year Skico veteran, took the helm at Aspen Mountain.Sewell said he was excited to return to Snowmass, where he worked for 24 years, because of its vast potential.”We’re going to be offering the whole package here,” he said, which is why he’s eyeing the ranking as the top resort in North America.Sewell believes Snowmass can achieve business acclaim to match the critical acclaim. When asked if the ski area can top sales of 1 million lift tickets, he said it could.O’Donnell noted before exiting as the head of the company that the Skico had its best year ever financially last season, an accomplishment he was proud to achieve.
The ski industry as a whole expects big things in 2006-07. The National Ski Areas Association, an industry trade group, reported that the U.S. ski industry set a record last season with 58.9 million visits. The previous high was in 2002-03. The five best seasons for the industry have come within the last six years.The Rocky Mountain Region of NSAA also set a record last season, as did Colorado’s resorts. The state’s 26 ski areas logged 12.53 million visits.It’s evident that people are interested in skiing, but the Skico still needs to lure them to Aspen and Snowmass. Preseason signs look rosy.”There’s really nothing working against us right now,” said Bill Tomcich, president of the Skico’s central reservations affiliate, Stay Aspen/Snowmass.
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For years it seemed like Aspen and Snowmass always had “an excuse” for why the season might not be successful, Tomcich said. This season that excuse doesn’t exist.Advance bookings through Stay Aspen/Snowmass, which handles an estimated 10 percent of lodge and hotel business, is “unprecedented,” according to Tomcich. “Our phones have been ringing off the hook for weeks now.”Some of the success is attributable to the central bookings agency doing a better job of reaching customers who were destined to take a vacation to Aspen and Snowmass. But some of the success is pure volume – more people booking earlier.The local business community is also breathing easier this season because the airline situation is secure. Last year, it was uncertain if United Airlines would continue serving the market once its BAE-146 aircraft was retired. United not only pledged to keep serving the market with smaller but sleeker CRJ-700 aircraft, it added direct flights from Chicago and San Francisco, Aspen’s second- and fifth-best markets respectively. It’s also increasing the number of flights on weekends between Aspen and Denver.Northwest abandoned its direct flights from Memphis and Minneapolis to Aspen, but Delta is offering flights to Aspen from its Salt Lake City hub.The net result of all the changes, Tomcich said, is a seat count nearly identical to last season. But the numbers only tell part of the story. There are more flights when they are needed – and new flights from leading markets. Delta’s direct flight from Salt Lake City, which provides connections to almost every major market, provides a benefit for all travelers.”The bigger story is we have really meaningful competition,” said Tomcich. Delta’s entry into the market has produced “downward pressure on airfares,” he said.
Tomcich said he will watch three key factors to gauge the season’s success:Any good season depends on good snow. People have become more savvy about picking a destination for a ski trip. They wait until closer to travel time, then scour the snow reports. “As always, snow is going to drive last-minute vacation decisions,” said Tomcich. Word is already out about Colorado’s early-season blizzards, he said.Will the national economy stay strong? The strength of the economy has given people the confidence to travel again, Tomcich said. Statistics show leisure travel is back to levels recorded before 9/11.Will properties play “let’s make a deal” with last-minute shoppers? The difference between a good season and a great one could come down to the ability of lodges and hotels to connect with last-minute shoppers, according to Tomcich. If they do a good job of making their depleted inventory available, then they will fill in “holes” left by existing reservations, he said.”All indications are looking to a strong year,” Tomcich concluded.Crown agreed on the big issue. “The two biggest factors are always snowfall and the ability to get there,” he said, noting that the Skico cannot control the weather or the airline service.
Given that the airline service appears to be solid for the season, Crown is crossing his fingers for good snow. If it comes, he expects a “modest increase” in customer visits for the four ski areas.”I’d like us to build a bit from last year,” Crown said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.