Ski industry faces `serious times’ and tough competition
The Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s annual membership meeting resembled a wake Thursday, as local, state and national ski industry leaders mourned the outcome of last season.
The somber tone was set when Aspen Skiing Co. President and Chief Executive Officer Pat O’Donnell stressed that he didn’t think that poor snow was the prime reason for declining business in 1998-99.
“My mantra since January has been these are serious times for the ski industry,” O’Donnell said.
His theme was followed by the leaders of Colorado Ski Country USA and the National Ski Areas Association. Skier visits, the industry’s primary measure of business, dropped locally, in Colorado and nationally.
John Frew, head of Ski Country, said Colorado’s share of the U.S. market from outside the state dropped for the fourth consecutive season, as did international business.
Overall, Colorado skier visits were down about 630,000, to 11.3 million, Frew said. Colorado resorts, which have traditionally dominated the industry, are facing tougher competition from places like California and Utah. The latter will cash in on hosting the 2002 Olympic Games.
Utah’s ski area association has announced it will try to boost its numbers from 3 million for the winter to 4 million in 1999-2000, Frew said.
Ski Country will undertake some new initiatives this year to try to avoid getting raided and, in fact, boost its numbers. The trade association’s board approved a $1 million contribution for each of the next three years to the Colorado Tourism Board.
Those funds will help promote Colorado skiing in a magazine advertising campaign and on the Internet. Michael Berry, president of the Lakewood, Colo.-based National Ski Areas Association, noted that ski ticket sales throughout the country were down 3.7 percent to about 52.1 million last season.
He identified competition from Canada, and particularly Whistler, as a leading reason for declining numbers. Resorts in British Columbia alone saw lift ticket sales soar 18.5 percent last season.
“The heartburn we felt in this country, they didn’t feel at all in Canada,” he said.
Canada’s favorable exchange rate lured skiers from the United States as well as international business that traditionally came to this country, according to Berry.
Even without formidable competition from Canada, ski resorts are facing a tough time, said Berry. People face a greater range of vacation opportunities than ever before, he said. Many don’t even consider a ski trip their No. 1 choice in the winter.
Marketing research shows that seven in 10 people want to go somewhere new on vacation, even if they enjoyed their experience at a destination they visited previously. Given those prospects, raising skier visits will be difficult.
“You cannot look at last year as an anomaly,” Berry said.
As a whole, O’Donnell, Frew and Berry were heavy on the problem side of the equation but light on the solution side – a fact Skico Chief Operating Officer John Norton couldn’t help but poke fun at during his turn at the speaking podium.
“As John [Frew] and Michael [Berry] basically told you, we’re screwed,” Norton quipped.
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Mario Ruiz came to Aspen Highlands from Bariloche through the ski patrol exchange as part of the Sister Cities program last winter. He quickly ingrained himself with the Highlands patrol. Ruiz was killed July 27 in an avalanche while working at his home ski area. The Highlands patrol is raising funds for his family.