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Lodging officials nervously watch travel numbers as Iraq war looms

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

While the travel industry is concerned about the effect a war with Iraq may have on leisure travel, in Aspen, that concern hasn’t yet materialized into dramatically slower bookings.

“The concern is there, but bookings haven’t changed any” from what they were a month ago, said Barry Lefkowitz, president of Aspen Ski Tours, which books 10 percent of the lodging in Aspen.

David Perry, Aspen Skiing Co. vice president of marketing and sales, said he heard from other resorts and central reservations agencies that call volume was at a low point the morning after the president’s State of the Union address on Jan. 28.

“But call volume can be a misleading statistic – when you compare this year to last year, it’s a whole different business climate,” Perry said. “People now go shopping on the Net, and they’re just calling to book, not calling to shop. It’s been a very distinct shift in shopping and buying habits.”

But Bill Tomcich of Stay Aspen Snowmass, which books about 6 percent of the lodging in Aspen, said he thinks it would be naive to say the threat of war hasn’t impacted business in town at all.

“We’re going to have a flat February and March, which isn’t bad, but that’s my optimism coming through,” he said. “For us to say that the issue of national security is having no impact would be wrong – things have slowed down.”

Tomcich said the general trend toward last-minute bookings has continued this year, and he said it’s hard to tell exactly how business will be for any given month far in advance.

Mick Spalding from the Aspen Lodging Co. is head of the Aspen Lodging Association. He said while he hasn’t spoken with every member of the association, several have concerns about the possibility of war and the economy affecting call volume.

“From what I’ve heard, calls have been down for the last three to four weeks, but it’s impossible to tell if it’s war, the economy or other things affecting that,” Spalding said. “We hear that other ski resorts are having the same type of experience.”

Perry, who worked at Whistler/Blackcomb in British Columbia during the Gulf War in 1991, said the resort actually saw an increase in business, perhaps because “people saw Canada as a benign place to go.”

Perry said after the Sept. 11 attacks, he did research on the travel industry in the wake of a “geopolitical event,” and found that skiers and snowboarders were less affected by the event than many other travelers.

“People that ski and ride – it’s how they define themselves,” he said. “It’s not just a discretionary vacation they take, it’s a very integral part of their lives.”

Perry said after Sept. 11, he found that 50 percent of the general population said they’d be less inclined to travel, but the figures for skiers and snowboarders was half that.

“They are not going to allow their lives to be affected by even terrorism, so I don’t anticipate that if war, God forbid, happens, that skiing will be adversely affected in any major way,” he said.

Perry acknowledges uncertainty in the travel industry right now, but maintains that winter sports fans are a resilient bunch. Spalding pointed out that crowds flocked to Aspen to either watch or participate in the ESPN Winter X Games, regardless of any political uncertainty.

As for when war could occur, Lefkowitz said lodging might be less affected if it happened during Aspen’s summer season. He said he considers summer travel a different market, drawing a new crowd from the Front Range for the weekend, as well as long-term summer residents who arrive each year for the Aspen Music Festival.

“Hopefully by the time war starts, our season will be over – at least the winter season, ” Lefkowitz said.

[Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com]


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