Resorts ease off new chairlifts
ASPEN – Only a handful of Colorado ski resorts are adding new chairlifts or other shiny, new toys this year, but they are still investing millions of dollars in capital improvements.
Most of the 26 ski areas in the state are focused on more subtle ways to boost guest services, through projects like increased snowmaking, renovating lodges and restaurants, and enhancing terrain parks.
Those additions “might not be as sexy or obvious to our customers right away,” said Jennifer Rudolph, spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA, a ski trade association. But the additions are still vital to keep customers satisfied, she said.
Arapahoe Basin and Vail Mountain are the only Colorado resorts adding major chairlifts. The Black Mountain Express, a $4 million detachable quad chair, will replace the Exhibition fixed grip triple chair out of A-Basin’s base.
Vail is replacing the High Noon Lift with a high-speed quad that will serve the Sun Up and Sun Down bowls.
Steamboat added the Burgess Creek Terrace and Umbrella Bar on the Bear River Bar and Grill Deck at its base.
Crested Butte added 15 acres of intermediate terrain on the main mountain.
Snowmass will add a 12-foot superpipe by the Lowdown Park on Velvet Falls. While guests of all levels are welcome to use it, the new feature is designed for those learning to ride a pipe.
Beyond those new features, few projects jump off the list of capital improvements at the state’s resorts. Aspen-Snowmass is developing an iPad application to let customers find out about conditions more easily. Copper Mountain is expanding free parking, while Eldora is adding a “magic carpet” conveyor lift. Nearly every resort is touting improvements and expansions to their snowmaking systems.
It’s a far cry from seasons where nearly every major resort added a fast lift and double-diamond terrain.
Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle said the company’s timeline for capital improvements didn’t call for any major projects this year. The Skico’s on-mountain improvements at Snowmass were undertaken ahead of schedule earlier in the decade, he noted. A major renovation of the Little Nell Hotel occurred last year. The replacement of the Elk Camp restaurant at Snowmass is the next major project on the list, but that was always envisioned a couple of years down the road.
Hanle said the recession didn’t alter the Skico’s plans; there was no project that was delayed because of the tough economic times.
Michael Berry, president of the Denver-based National Ski Areas Association, said the U.S. ski industry as a whole is in a cycle where it is taking a break from lift replacements.
“Go back over the last 20 years. Ski areas have spent a huge amount of money,” Berry said.
An all-out lift replacement cycle from 1990 to 2008 transformed many resorts, he said. Now many ski areas are looking for a return on their capital investments.
He expects ski areas to concentrate on “invisible investments” like snowmaking for another three or four years, then return to more eye-catching projects as the first generation of high-speed chairlifts need replacing.
Berry said the tough economic times reinforce the current cautious approach to spending by ski areas, but it’s not entirely responsible for it. Some resort operators want to reduce their debt and improve their standing with lenders, he said.
One resort that isn’t pulling its purse strings tight in the recession is The Canyons near Park City, Utah. The owner is reshaping the base and adding or replacing eight chairlifts. One new lift will be a high-speed quad with seats that can be warmed to 55 degrees.
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