Skico hopes Snowmass can join elite resort club |

Skico hopes Snowmass can join elite resort club

The Aspen Skiing Co. hopes that Snowmass will some day be able to top the one-million-skier-visit mark.

There is no chance of that happening this season, but Skico officials believe Snowmass hasn’t come close yet to hitting its full stride.

Snowmass racked up about 777,000 skier and snowboard rider visits last season. Its numbers are down so far this winter.

The ski area has topped the 800,000 level three times in 33 seasons. Its best showing of 884,000 visits came two seasons ago.

If Snowmass is ever able to attract more than one million skier and rider visits, it would become part of an elite national club dominated by Colorado resorts.

Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone and Steamboat topped the mark last season. Winter Park topped one million the prior winter.

Skier and rider visits are the ski industry’s standard measure of business. One visit represents the purchase of a full- or part-day ticket.

Few resorts outside of Colorado release their skier visit totals. One industry source said Killington. Vt., has hovered around the one-million barrier in recent seasons. Heavenly Valley and Mammoth, in California, also flirt with the barrier in a good season.

Whistler/Blackcomb, the industry heavyweight from British Columbia, topped two million skier visits last season.

Snowmass offers the Skico’s only opportunity to top one million. The resort typically accounts for more than half of the company’s total skier visits at its four mountains. Last season Snowmass accounted for 54 percent of all visits.

So, Snowmass is clearly the key to the Skico’s fortunes.

That’s why Skico officials placed the Buttermilk development plan on indefinite hold Monday. They said they wanted to concentrate on overhauling Snowmass.

“You can’t do them both,” said Skico President and CEO Pat O’Donnell. “You just can’t afford to pass on an opportunity like this at Snowmass.”

The Skico’s owners, the Crown family of Chicago, spent $11 million in December to buy 500 acres around Snowmass. The big catch was 15 acres of mostly undeveloped land at the base.

The Skico staff is working with the Crowns on a plan for a base village and mountain improvements. Senior managers of the Skico will travel to a handful of U.S. resorts next month to look at qualities they might want to incorporate into the Snowmass plan.

While O’Donnell said he believes there’s “definitely” the possibility of cracking the one-million-skier-visit barrier, that’s not a specific goal.

Skico officials won’t set a skier-visit target and draw up a plan to meet that goal. Instead, they are counting on the development of the base village and “mountain enhancements” to generate more skier visits, said O’Donnell.

The base-area development will include a substantial number of short-term tourist accommodations. That will give Snowmass a bigger bed base to draw from.

In addition, O’Donnell said the new chairlifts and other ski area facilities that will be part of the plan will make it more attractive to customers.

The company is counting on revenues from additional skier visits to supplement real estate development as the way to pay for the improvements.

The Skico’s head planner, Bill Kane, outlined three significant chairlift improvements last December that could be part of the overhaul of Snowmass.

First, the Skico wants to extend the Fanny Hill lift farther down the slope, close to the heart of what would be base village.

Second, the Burlingame lift, now a slow fixed-grip double, would be converted into a high-speed lift, realigned and extended so that riders could get off and reach the popular Big Burn chair. That would reduce what is now a three-lift ride to a two-lift ride from the mall to the Big Burn.

Third, a gondola or high-speed quad would be built from base village to the lower terminal of the Elk Camp lift. This would provide a much quicker way for skiers and riders to get to the popular east side of the mountain from the main base.

With three high-speed options for leaving the main base rather than one, skiers and riders wouldn’t be subjected to the long lines experienced at the Fanny Hill chair on busy mornings.

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