Skico is restless about loss of tourist `pillows’ |

Skico is restless about loss of tourist `pillows’

Aspen Skiing Co. officials insist that the loss of tourist accommodations rather than a faulty marketing message is to blame for their lousy business the last two seasons.

Even though the Skico set a record for skier and snowboard rider visits just three seasons ago, Chief Operating Officer John Norton claimed the declining bed base is a “major factor” in the company’s loss of about 16 percent of its customer visits over the last two seasons. Fewer tourist beds mean fewer tourists to buy lift tickets, he said.

Norton, the Skico’s marketing guru, said research indicates Aspen is still a popular destination, and “relatively high occupancy rates” during the winters show the marketing efforts are working.

Aspen and Snowmass have “the strongest occupancy in the ski business that we could find,” he told about 250 members of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association last week.

For the 1998-99 season, for example, Aspen-Snowmass posted a 72 percent occupancy rate over the entire ski season – better than all major competitors, according to the Skico’s research.

Copper Mountain was a distant second with 66 percent occupancy. Vail and Whistler/Blackcomb were on Copper’s heels with 65 and 63 percent, respectively. Beaver Creek was only 57 percent full over the course of the season. Pillows paradox Even with higher overall occupancy, Aspen and Snowmass have lost more business than some other competitors. That paradox, said Norton, is due to the high rate of destruction or conversion of tourist accommodations in Aspen and Snowmass Village.

Aspen has lost 18 percent of its capacity for tourists over the last five years, or about 1,800 “pillows,” Norton said. Snowmass Village has been more stable, but definitely isn’t adding pillows. Combined, the two resort towns supply 13,500 pillows for tourists, according to the Skico’s research.

Meanwhile, other resorts are adding pillows and their supplies dwarf those of Aspen and Snowmass. Whistler/Blackcomb, the ski industry giant, boasts about 25,000 pillows, or about twice the combined 13,500 offered locally.

Breckenridge, which posted the most skier visits in the U.S. last season, has 24,000 tourist pillows. Vail has 18,000 while Steamboat offers 17,000.

The loss of lodging threatens the Skico’s ability to rack up the impressive skier and snowboard riders visits it once did, and it limits the company’s ability to bounce back from poor seasons, Norton said.

“It means business is not going to bounce back like it has historically, because we don’t have a place to put them,” he said.

The Skico’s skier and rider visits were down 8.2 percent in 1998-99 from the previous season and down another 7.5 percent last season. Company executives are aggressively shooting for a 10 percent increase next winter. Record in 1997-98 Although Aspen and Snowmass are losing their tourist bed base, that didn’t prevent the resorts from posting record numbers in 1997-98 when they racked up 1.56 million customer visits. The only other time the four local ski areas topped 1.5 million was in 1992-93.

Norton discounted that performance, noting that locals used their passes a lot that year and that no record was set for lift tickets sold to tourists.

But loss of tourist beds doesn’t explain the woes of the entire Colorado ski industry the last two seasons.

The real problem has been the dramatic loss of “destination visitors” to Colorado, said Terry Hunt, general manager of the Snowmass Village Resort Association.

Colorado’s destination skiers, those who take overnight vacations, have dropped 16 percent over the last two seasons – the same loss the Skico has experienced.

The loss of tourist beds is significant because it means the Skico cannot try to battle for market share in the same way as some of its competitors, said Hunt. Other resorts are adding pillows to try to bring in more customers at busier times.

“That’s not an option here,” said Hunt.

Despite having lower occupancy rates than Aspen-Snowmass, massive bed bases are credited with making Whistler/Blackcomb and Breckenridge the two most successful resorts in North America.

But since adding beds isn’t a major option here, the Skico is battling for market share by offering discounted multiday lift tickets – which reduce the daily price to as low as $39 – and providing higher quality customer service.

“In my opinion, that’s the main thing that drove the $39 tickets,” said Hunt, referring to the state’s loss of destination visitors. “And for the record, I totally agree with their strategy.”

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