Ski tours flocking to Aspen

Janet Urquhart

A recovering national economy combined with competitive pricing by Aspen’s lodging industry helped make Aspen/Snowmass a favorite for tour packages this season, according to a survey of ski-tour companies.

The Ski Tour Operators Association, representing 20 travel companies in North America, wrapped up its four-day annual meeting in Telluride Mountain Village on Wednesday.

SKITOPS representatives, who book tour packages that combine airline travel, lift tickets and lodging, met with 127 “suppliers” in Telluride, including ski area operators, lodge and hotel representatives, ground transportation companies, airline reps and the like. The Aspen Skiing Co. and local lodging representatives were among those making contacts in preparation for next season.

Overall, SKITOPS operators reported modest growth in the sale of packaged ski vacations this winter. In Colorado, which gets the lion’s share of bookings for most of the tour companies, Aspen/Snowmass was among the resorts enjoying a marked increase in business, according to the association. Ski tours were also up at Vail, Telluride, Steamboat Springs and Winter Park.

“Noticeably absent from the growth curve were the Summit County areas of Keystone, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain,” according to a SKITOPS press release.

Elsewhere in the West, business from the ski tour companies was up at Jackson Hole, Sun Valley, Big Sky, Park City/Deer Valley and Whistler/Blackcomb.

Some of the travel wholesalers saw a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in business this season, while others reported declines ranging from 5 percent to 15 percent.

The 20 ski tour companies were surveyed on their top three destinations for the winter season that is nearing its end. Of the 15 that responded, six put Aspen/Snowmass in the top three, according to a SKITOPS spokesman.

For Sports America, a tour operator based in Santa Rosa, Calif., packages to Aspen/Snowmass were up 25 percent over the 2002-03 season, according to Steve Broski, director of marketing.

The company works with 26 resorts in North America, and about 40 percent of its business is in the sale of group packages, primarily to ski clubs, he said.

“Yeah, I would say Aspen was one of our bigger gainers this year,” Broski said.

Clients who might have felt priced out of Aspen/Snowmass in years past are now getting competitively priced packages, due in large part to attractive deals from the lodges, hotels and condos during lulls in the winter season, he said.

“The lodging is getting real aggressive at times,” Broski said.

Aspen/Snowmass has long been a top destination for Rocky Mountain Vacations, based in Glenwood Springs, according to company president David Tanner, who is also the president of SKITOPS.

Customers who aren’t initially looking to book a trip to Aspen/Snowmass often wind up doing so, Tanner said.

“They never thought of it … they never thought they could afford it,” he said. “The lodging costs in Aspen/Snowmass, if you look around, are really quite comparable with other resorts, particularly if you package it with bulk airline ticketing, which tour operators are able to do.”

The SKITOPS survey responses also noted the challenges that ski-travel wholesalers faced this season, including difficulties securing airline seats to the more remote ski areas, last-minute pricing changes by hotel and lodging companies, and what they called confusing Internet promotions from some resort areas.

In the survey, individual tour companies made note of an upturn in travel to the States by Canadians as a result of the weaker U.S. dollar and crowds at some Front Range ski areas that are driving skiers to more remote locales.

“Some of our clients are looking for a change and are seeking lesser-known resorts that maybe are not as crowded,” said one travel company owner.

“Pricing is getting out of hand,” said another ski tour operator, suggesting high-priced lodging and lift-ticket prices are hurting some Colorado resorts.

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