Future growth of ski areas a summertime affair
December 5, 2011
ASPEN – The day is coming when ski areas might be as well-known for adrenaline-jacking rides on summer trails specially built for downhill plunges and hair-raising whisks through the forest canopy, 50-feet off the ground, on ziplines.
Aspen Skiing Co. and just about every other ski area operator is exploring how to expand uses – and revenues – during the summer and offseasons. The operators spend millions of dollars on amenities like chairlifts and restaurants only to have them sit unused for seven months of the year.
“Ski areas have struggled for decades to figure out how to utilize those assets in the nonwinter months, figure out how to keep people employed, how to maybe lose less money in the summer,” said David Perry, senior vice president, mountain operations for Skico.
Skico’s answer is to offer a variety of activities to try to appeal to a broad range of people. Summer visitors have more diverse interests. Some come to mountain bike, others come to hike or sight-see. Skico is trying to attract them to the Elk Camp section of Snowmass by offering gondola rides, developing mountain bike trails, designating dedicated hiking trails and providing a climbing wall, playground and small fishing pond near Cafe Suzanne.
“To have healthy business in the summer, you need to have diverse offerings,” Perry said.
There are plans to significantly boost the offerings at Elk Camp. Skico is halfway finished with construction of a new, $13 million restaurant. It will open for the 2012-13 ski season.
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“We think that enhanced activities like ziplines, for example, through the forest canopy would be a really wonderful addition,” Perry said. “It’s low impact. It would get people to appreciate the national forest for its beauty and its diversity and the ecosystem.
“We think that would be a really wonderful thing to put in.”
Skico will also consider if an alpine slide would be appropriate somewhere in its summer operations. Environmentalists have always been wary of ski areas turning the mountains into amusement parks – something they say is inappropriate for public lands.
“Alpine slides are a big and controversial topic,” Perry acknowledged. “Is that OK? We believe it probably is because it’s using gravity. It’s not a motorized activity and it’s people enjoying the outdoors in a family environment, so we think that’s probably OK.”
In the past, the U.S. Forest Service has been caught as the arbiter of clashing visions. That often caused paralysis when forest supervisors didn’t want to try to interpret laws to determine what was and wasn’t allowed. Legislation by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D.-Colo.) solved the problem. It makes small changes to the National Forest Ski Area Permit Act of 1986 to clarify what is allowed at ski areas – including summers. It received bipartisan support in Congress this year and was signed by President Obama on Nov. 7.
Udall views the bill as a chance to bolster the economies of mountain towns by allowing ski area operators to pursue more activities outside of winters.
In an interview prior to the passage of Udall’s bill, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said he would welcome the clarity on what is allowed and using the national forest to a greater extent to improve mountain town economies during slower times of the year.
“It’s more filling little niches that are vacant right now,” he said.
Fitzwilliams wants to work with ski areas to provide a portal for people to get into the backcountry, educate them about wildlife habitat and what’s happening to the ecosystem because of the bark beetle epidemic.
The key for expanding use for summers is identifying “nature-based activities,” according to Fitzwilliams. Udall shared that goal.
“We are not interested in amusement parks up on the hill,” Fitzwilliams said.
Skico hasn’t turned in any specific plans yet for ziplines or alpine slides, but Perry left no doubt that summer activities are where he sees big opportunities for growth.