March takes a back seat to January for Aspen winter business | AspenTimes.com

March takes a back seat to January for Aspen winter business

ASPEN – Aspen’s lodges, hotels and condominiums have faced an increasingly difficult time filling their beds in March in the past decade or so, and this year appears to be no exception.

While advance reservations for the winter overall look solid, bookings for March as of Oct. 15 were behind the pace at the same point last year, according to David Perry, Aspen Skiing Co. senior vice president, mountain division.

Part of the problem is when some important holidays fall this upcoming ski season. Carnival in Brazil and Mardi Gras fell in the early part of March last ski season, giving business a solid boost. They come earlier in 2012: Brazil will celebrate Carnival Feb. 17-21. Mardi Gras is Tuesday, Feb. 21, bumping it up against Presidents Day weekend to create an unusually busy period at that point in the season.

“It’s going to be harder to fill March because of the Carnival factor,” Perry said in a recent meeting with the Basalt Town Council. He later elaborated that it will take a lot of hard work to attract visitors in early March, but the second and third weeks of the month likely will fill in well because of spring break. Easter falls on April 8, 2012, compared to April 24 last ski season. That will help spur business in late March 2012, according to Perry.

March is vital for Skico’s profits, and the month makes or breaks the winter for many tourist accommodations. Former Skico President and CEO Pat O’Donnell once explained that the company needs roughly the first 100 days of the season to produce the revenues to offset its bills. The company’s profits come in the last 40-some days of the season, he said.

In recent years, business in March has dropped a bit while the once slow month of January has gone gangbusters.

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“March for years was the busiest winter month. Now January is king due to [Winter] X Games and international and international guests,” said Chuck Frias, partner in Frias Properties, Aspen’s biggest firm for condominium rentals.

March business has been on a slow decline for about 15 years, Frias said.

“Why? Aging skiers, competing resorts; spring gets customers thinking golf and beach more,” he said.

Joe Raczak, general manager of the North of Nell condominiums, said Aspen’s growing share of international business has been a boon for January. International travelers plan their vacations earlier than domestic travelers. January is a popular travel month.

“Almost 90 percent of people that we have booked for January are international,” Raczak said, adding that almost all of them are from Australia.

The North of Nell’s revenues and occupancy rate were higher for January last ski season than for March. It appears that trend will spill over to this winter. Raczak said business on the books for January is currently about 11 percent higher than at the same time last year.

Raczak said there is one glaring absence from March these days: “I can tell you in the past, I was very popular with Wall Street,” he said. “They would take two or three weeks.” Now the stock traders and bankers aren’t coming at the same frequency.

That’s not to say March has turned into a bad month for businesses in Aspen. Sales by tourist accommodations last March totaled $18.92 million, an increase of 5 percent over March 2010.

Sales by tourist accommodations in January totaled $19.47 million, in increase of 6 percent over the month the prior year.

For the 2011-12 winter overall, Frias and Raczak both said bookings are strong. “We are ahead of last year’s pace significantly and [looking at] the largest percentage gain in many years.”

Perry noted that this season’s business will get a boost from Christmas and New Year’s Day falling on Sunday.

“It’s probably the best day for it to fall, historically,” he said. “There tends to be closer to two full weeks of holidays, and the ‘weekend effect’ helps boost visitation a bit.”

scondon@aspentimes.com